Three Aspects of Processing Anger

This aspect of The DOC (Direct your Own Care) Journey is by far and away the most critical leg. I hear a similar story over and over and over again, “”Who would have thought it was the anger?”, or “I didn’t realize I was so angry.” Then it is inspiring and fascinating how quickly people can and will heal. It is consistent. However, what is also common is that many, if not most people can’t or won’t let go of their anger. Why??

Acknowledging the extreme complexity of this topic, I have three basic observations. One is that anger is powerful and addicting. It does serve an important purpose in that it keeps you safe. There are few, if any rewards from a survival viewpoint, for being vulnerable. The second reason people can’t let go of their anger is that they have not learned to be vulnerable. It is an intolerable feeling and why would you want to experience it? Because it is also the essence of relationships and being human. What a dilemma!!
The final reason is that people are not connected to their anger. They have dissociated from it and can’t feel or see it. It manifests in multiple ways. However, just because you are not aware of them doesn’t mean that they are hidden from those who are close to you.

Processing anger overview
I have changed my thinking and have observed that you can’t just jump to forgiveness from anger without understanding and addressing all aspects of it. I now use the term, “processing anger” and there are three categories of interventions to accomplish it. Keep in mind that anger is a necessary and powerful force to stay alive. Instead of fighting, suppressing, or trying to get rid of it, a better concept might be, “developing a working relationship with it.

This process is an ongoing learned skill with much overlap.

  • Output – Lowering inflammatory markers and elevated metabolism (body burning fuel) is a necessary starting point. Sustained elevations cause illness, chronic diseases, and early death. Your brain is also “off-line” because it is inflamed and blood supply is diverted from the thinking centers.
  • The nervous system–If the nervous system is hyperactive for any reason, it will consistently overstimulate every aspect of your survival response.
  • Input–Anger is always linked to an event in the past that either gets replayed in the present or is continually interfering with your current reality. Forgiveness simply breaks that link. It does not get rid of it. That is why forgiveness is such a dynamic ongoing skill that you use multiple times every day.

Why this sequence?
Addressing the output first is critical for several reasons. Your brain is affected by inflammation. The supporting cells of your neurons, called glial cells, throw off inflammatory proteins call “inflammatory cytokines” and your brain is sensitized. The danger signals to your brain are magnified and you’ll experience more pain. The blood flow to your neocortex (human thinking regions of the brain) is also compromised and it is impossible to think as clearly. The only intention in this state is your own survival and not the needs of those around you (unless it serves you). So, the first step is to use methods that directly lower this response by stimulating your autonomic nervous system (via the vagus nerve) to secrete anti-inflammatory calming cytokines, so you can learn and implement these new strategies.
Addressing the status of your nervous system is the next important phase. If you were raised in a chaotic or abusive family that was devoid of safety and deep nurturing, you won’t have much capacity to nurture and care for yourself, much less allow yourself to feel vulnerable (anxious). This is also a learned process that you will allow to happen over your lifetime. One of the paradoxes is that you can’t force it. That would be the antithesis of vulnerability.

Finally, forgiveness is a multi-dimensional process that changes the input into your brain so there is less intensity being sent to your brain and there will be a calmer output in the form of anti-inflammatory cytokines and safety hormones. It is actually a selfish act in that you are making a powerful move to take back the present moment. You are breaking the neurological links to the unpleasant aspects of your past.

Addressing the three aspects

  • Breath work
  • Calming music
  • Mindfulness/ meditation
  • Medical hypnosis/ biofeedback

These are autonomic nervous system interventions that directly stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (calming). It may take a few weeks to learn and consistently implement them before you begin to feel less anxious and agitated. There are many layers of these tools. It has been a better starting point than trying to jump straight to forgiveness. You can only do what you can do when you can do it.

The state of your nervous system.
This is a critical piece of the big picture. Your central nervous system is processing over 20 millions bits of information per second and directing your behavior in ways to keep you safe and functional. Most of this occurs at an unconscious level. It is programmed to recognize danger that you learned from past experiences. Anytime you are anxious or angry, something in the present is connected to an unpleasant learning experience from your past. Understanding the nature and source of these “triggers” is important and then retraining your brain to choose different reactions when you really are not in danger.

Your immediate environment also dictates your state of alertness. Lack of sleep, poor nutrition (inflammatory), little physical exercise, troubled relationships also are factors affecting your perception and processing of pain. Each and all of them make a difference.

What you choose to put into and keep in your brain is up to you. You can decide to continue to complain about your pain and troubles. Any time you are complaining, you are now the victim of that person or situation. Or you can be critical of almost everyone, anything, including the news and yourself. How does any of this help calm your nervous system? This does become challenging in that most things we are upset about are valid–but you are the one who gets to suffer.