I love exploring emotions from both a neurological perspective and a philosophical one. Here’s some fantastic writing from Newberg and Waldman (How God Changes your Brain), about anger:
“Anger makes people indiscriminately punitive, blameful, pessimistic and unilaterally careless in their logic and reasoning skills. Furthermore, anger encourages your brain to defend your beliefs- be they right or wrong- and when this happens, you’ll be more likely to feel prejudice towards others. You’ll inaccurately perceive anger in other people’s faces, and this will increase your own distrust and fear. It’s an insidious process that feeds on itself, and it can influence your behaviour for very long periods of time, Eventually, it will even damage important structures in our brain.
Nor is it good for your heart. Regardless of your age, gender or ethnicity – anger, cynicism, hostility, and defensiveness will increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and cerebrovascular problems. What makes anger particularly dangerous is that it blinds you to the fact that you are even angry; thus it gives you a false sense of certainty, confidence and optimism,”
This inspires so many thoughts for me!
The last point in particular, about anger making us feel certain, confident and optimistic might sound strange, but I have noticed that people use anger to protect themselves from depression, sadness and feelings of disempowerment. As a therapist, I’m often working towards helping people lift up their anger and take a look underneath, because it’s usually an offensive defence used to shield feelings of vulnerability.
While anger can be destructive and health-corroding when habitual and excessive, I do feel there are times when it can be therapeutic and helpful. This perspective of mine doesn’t entirely mesh with what the science and the Dalai Lama both tell me about anger, but perhaps therapeutic anger can be viewed as a temporary bridge that leads us out of helplessness, rather than a permanent place to dwell. We can pull the bridge down after we reach re-empowerment.
And neither is the repression of anger any healthier than the open and hostile expression of it. The answer lays more in our capacity to develop the self-awareness needed to observe our own anger without being consumed by it, and blind to it, and to practise alternative responses to stress and feeling threatened. In therapy, I ask my clients to observe how they are feeling and to explore why they are feeling the way they do. Quite often, with anger, we discover that we are actually feeling hurt, frightened or devalued in some way, and the anger is an instinctive and often unhelpful response to these more vulnerable feelings.
For many, anger feels safer than hurt, humiliation and fear, because it makes them feel stronger. But if we can learn to feel safer with our more vulnerable feelings, the anger becomes less of a crutch. The challenge for most of us lies in the fact that any current trigger for anger (and the underlying feelings of vulnerability), is going to bring up a lifetime of unexamined, unprocessed, complex emotion! In therapy, we peel back layers, face the emotion, join the dots between all the events through your life that are linked to this emotion, and we begin to make different choices. In exploring how we habitually respond, and how well this is or isn’t working for us, we can begin to make new and better choices based on who we are becoming, rather than who we were.
When I feel a feeling, I sit with it. And what I find with anger is that it’s often a red feeling. A hot feeling. An active feeling. A restless feeling of needing to take powerful, decisive action and to express my power in vocal or physical ways. The urge to act is hard to resist, but if you can breathe through the feeling and stay still, while consciously releasing muscle tension from your body and letting go of mental dialogue on the exhalation, the feeling can pass. And this often saves us from regret!
While doing this mindfulness exercise, it’s vital that you consciously release the feelings in your body and the thoughts in your mind with the exhalation. If you keep feeding your angry internal dialogue and imagery, your anger will grow and your muscle tension won’t relax. One of the things I love to do is to imagine all that red energy (feeling) inside me is a valuable fuel for creative projects and vitality in general that could be gathered and stored and used in a positive way at a later date. So I tell myself a story about picking all the angry prickles out of my red energy and blowing them away with the exhalation, and tucking that glorious fire away in my base chakra for a rainy day.
Red energy, when it isn’t busy being angry, is a potent sexual, creative, active vitality energy that can be used to motivate, energise and inspire us! Without a wee bit of fire running through our veins, we can lack focus, direction, passion and pizzazz.
If you have a deck of Aura Cards, all of the red colours can tend towards anger, but the colours called Blame, Ambition, Firedancer and Impatience are particularly prone to getting a bit too hot around the collar.
If you have been repressing your anger and stewing on it, or torturing yourself with paroxysms of alternating guilt and resentment, the Aura Card that best reflects your state is Resentment, a dark browny-green colour that would surely taste bitter if it were at all edible!
Conflict Green is another classic anger colour that shows up in the aura when we are caught in a game of button pressing and string pulling with another. It’s the colour (or mind-body state) just prior to Resentment Green. In other words, getting caught in nasty head-space games with other people will inevitably lead to resentment.
Less obvious anger colours are Hardship Grey, Burdened Purple, Defensive Purple, and Detachment Blue. Hardship Grey is a cynical anger, harbouring a lack of empathy that can make us behave in hostile and unfriendly ways towards others, especially when it is paired with other anger colours, like the reds. Burdened Purple is a bit like Resentment Green; a more hidden, repressed anger tied in with martyrdom and guilt. “Don’t worry about me!”, they say, all the while secretly hating you because you don’t. Passive anger at it’s best (or worst!).
Defensive Purple is more like Hardship Grey: it’s cynical. But like all purples, it can get quite high and mighty at times, puffing it’s ego out defensively with spluttery bluff and bluster, or spinning it’s heel in a coldly regal and deeply wounded huff.
Last but not least is the anger that scares me most: Detachment Blue. You would think this colour entirely capable of objective detachment from strong emotions like anger, but unfortunately anger turned cold can burn the brightest of them all, harboured rage stoked with patient thoughts of revenge, all hidden behind a sweet, polite, smile.