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Anger and Exercise

anger is a normal, adaptive human emotion

What Is the Link?

A recent study appears to confirm that exercise can reduce anger. According to Nathaniel Thom, a stress physiologist, "exercise, even a single bout of it, can have a robust prophylactic effect" against the buildup of anger. (See, "Phys Ed - Can Exercise Moderate Anger?" in The New York Times Sunday Magazine)

Why is that a surprise? Most therapists have a good, intuitive understanding of the link. But it might be counter-intuitive to those who think anger is a negative and dangerous eruption in the brain. How could something as positive and normal as exercise have an effect on an experience as toxic as anger is often thought to be? On another level, some might wonder, how can the body affect the mind?

Anger is a normal and adaptive response to an attack or a threat. It has been useful in our evolutionary struggle for survival. The brain detects the danger and the body is aroused and energized to react with fight or flight.

Sometimes, of course, it gets out of hand. Some people, clearly, see threats where there are none, or where the danger is minimal. Their bodies get aroused inappropriately. They could use some help in understanding the signals that trigger their responses, and finding ways to get their anger under better control.

According to The Times, researchers are trying to find the physiological and chemical roots of anger. Meanwhile, Mr. Thom suggested: "if you know that you're going to be entering into a situation that is likely to make you angry, go for a run first."

Not a bad idea. But the run might be useful not just because it works off some excess energy but also because it gives you a chance to think about what made you angry in the first place - or what you really want to do about it.

As a culture we seem to fear anger. As this study implies, we want to find its physiological and chemical "causes," as if it were a disease. We are trying to convert a normal experience that is occasionally uncomfortable, like depression, into a pathology that can treated pharmacologically and eliminated.

The real danger is that researchers might actually succeed in finding such a pill. We would then risk losing touch with the meaning our anger has for us as well as the energy it can provide.

The English poet William Blake once wrote: "The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction." He had a point. Well-directed anger, stemming from clarity of thought, gets through to others more effectively than platitudes. And it can be a welcome relief.

More from Ken Eisold Ph.D.
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