A.I.R. Over Anger
Here's an approach to unpack feelings of anger.
Posted Jul 16, 2020
There’s anger all around! Pandemic, civil unrest, political polarization, unemployment, and economic upheaval. Feelings of anger can occur along a continuum, ranging from slight irritation to full-blown rage. Many of us associate anger with an explosive expression, an outburst, or even violence. For this reason, many think of anger as a “negative” emotion to be avoided. As a result of how anger is enculturated in their families of origin, society, or religion, many suppress or repress their anger. Studies show that repressing anger is not healthy and can lead to increased physical and mental health problems.
Anger is a normal, natural emotion. Like all emotions, anger is a response to circumstances or relationships indicating a particular need. It serves a purpose. It can move you to action and doesn’t have to be a violent or volatile response. Anger is a response to a perceived or real violation such as a crossed boundary, a betrayal, and an injustice for ourselves or those we care about. Anger is functional. It’s the fuel you need to guard your boundaries. Protests and riots are expressions of anger as is explaining your anger to a teenager who didn’t call to tell you (s)he would miss curfew. Even in grief, anger arises out of a sense of injustice; that the loss was untimely or unfair.
How we express or don’t express our feelings varies around the world. In a country made up of immigrants, it is interesting that anger is considered taboo. Taboo is something that is prohibited or restricted by social customs. Women often are not allowed to be angry in their families of origin, and therefore may substitute sadness for anger. Conversely, men in their families of origin may not be allowed to be sad (cry) or scared and therefore may substitute anger for fear or sadness. Cultural, ethnic, political, and familial traditions have established many of the customs in this country. Previous norms are now being challenged by the media, cell phones, and social media, as displays of anger are becoming more prevalent among an outrage culture producing more extreme expressions of anger. As leaders display more anger, more expectations go unmet, and traditional social and political behavioral boundaries are crossed, there is just more anger all around.
Perhaps it's not the anger we feel that’s taboo, but rather the behavior we use when expressing it. For some, expressions of anger seem too often accompanied with aggression. On the other hand, internalizing or ignoring anger is actually bad for your health, potentially leading to heart disease, eating disorders, depression, accidents, or feelings of shame. Holding in anger when boundaries have been crossed, may disenfranchise one’s ability to say or even recognize when there is a need to stop and reestablish boundaries. Anger is the body’s way of communicating the need for change. Internalizing anger can lead to self-destructive behaviors such as addictions or self-harm. Learning to acknowledge the feeling of anger and the underlying need it conveys, allows anger to serve as a motivator.
Like fear’s response to real or perceived danger, anger originates in the limbic system, part of the brain, with the amygdala and is the fight part of the fight-flight-freeze response. Anger can be intoxicating, bringing on an adrenaline rush, making it hard to listen and difficult to be rational. Some people actually get an unhappy ‘high’ from anger, and continue to try to replicate it. Acting out, yelling, cutting people off, or physical violence may give a moment of satisfaction usually followed by more anger and shame.
Experiencing the outward expression of another person’s anger can also be difficult. One can feel visibly shaken up, overwhelmed, or shut down. Uncertainty about what a person is capable of and one’s own prior experiences of anger impact how another’s anger is received. Learning how to respond to another’s anger is as important as learning to express one’s own anger.
One approach for dealing with anger is to breathe and pause by counting slowly to ten or take a time-out before responding to anger. Building on this approach, an acronym for responding to and exploring anger, one’s own or another’s, is accept/acknowledge anger, identify its source, and reestablish boundaries/reframe expectations (A.I.R). After breathing, and pausing, here are three simple practices to help you respond constructively to anger:
A: Accept/Acknowledge anger
Everyone gets angry. Conflict is a normal part of being in relationship with others. Accepting and acknowledging the normalcy of anger can keep it from getting out of control. Acknowledge the body’s physical response. Anger is not a one-way street. Everyone is capable of becoming angry and saying or doing something to make another angry. Be compassionate with yourself and those who are angry with you.
I: Identify the reason for anger
Anger is communicating a need for change. Before change, the unmet expectation, the boundary crossed, or the violation must first be identified.
R: Re-establish boundaries/Reframe expectations
Once the source of anger has been identified determine the behavior that needs to change in order to set/reset boundaries or expectations that are within one’s control. For example, this can sometimes mean keeping some distance from the person or the daily events fueling your anger (e.g., limit watching the news or following social media) or choosing an activity in which to invest time and energy (e.g., activism)
If you are unable to recognize or control your expression of anger, you may need to seek a therapist or anger management program for additional support.
Anger serves a purpose. The challenge is to appropriately identify and express anger in a constructive manner. Anger can energize and create motivation needed to solve problems. Many are harnessing their anger right now by engaging in various forms of activism with energy directed towards taking tangible, productive steps that lead to long-lasting change.