The Relationship Between Anger and Vulnerability
How people in pain can release anger and improve their relationships.
Posted Nov 24, 2020
There is no reward for being vulnerable for any species of life, from one-celled organisms to homo sapiens. Consequences are severe and often swift. On the other hand, it is necessary to create space to experience safety and regenerate. Creatures exposed to sustained threat do not thrive or live as long.
Sustained threat fires up multiple defense mechanisms of the body, including inflammation. These inflammatory cells sensitize the nervous system and physically destroy tissue. There is a higher chance of developing serious diseases, especially in situations where there is little opportunity to find peace and safety.
Why hold onto anger?
It keeps you safe. It protects you from both emotional and physical pain. You are being asked to give up your anger so you can experience anxiety. Raw anxiety is an unpleasant feeling. It is this interaction that may be the root cause of why it is sometimes thought that you cannot really be open to change until you “hit bottom.” In other words, the anxiety is so out of control that it can no longer be contained by either functional or dysfunctional means.
Why be vulnerable?
Why would you ever want to be vulnerable? Because humans have language and social connections that are unique to our species. Being aware and vulnerable is the essence of relationships, and the deeper they are the more necessary these traits. It is an ironic and disturbing aspect of our existence.
Anger and anxiety
There is an intense relationship between anxiety and anger. Understanding this interaction can help calm your nervous system and improve the quality of your life.
- They are, first of all, the same entity. Anxiety is the sensation generated by your autonomic nervous system’s response to a threat. Stress hormones and inflammatory proteins are elevated and when a given situation doesn’t resolve (chronic pain), more of these molecules are secreted in an effort to regain control. The result is anger, which is anxiety with a neurochemical chemical kick.
- Anxiety and anger are universal, powerful, and necessary for life. You cannot and are not going to get rid of them.
- Anxiety represents a feeling of vulnerability and helplessness. The intention is to be so unpleasant that it compels us to take action to decrease it. So, we are hard-wired to avoid this emotion at all costs.
- Anger feels powerful and is often effective in regaining control. It is a rapid response that solves or masks anxiety. It also gives you the extra boost to resolve a threat.
- But what happens to your thinking when you are angry? The blood flow to the frontal lobes of your brain is diminished, the inflammatory proteins in your brain sensitize you to sensory input, and much of your reaction emanates from the more primitive centers of your brain. You are flooded with a barrage of angry, intense, and irrational thoughts. It is temporary insanity.
- Anger both masks the feeling of anxiety and also turbocharges the system that created it.
Reasons to process and let go of anger
- The main reason is that you simply cannot heal or thrive when you remain angry. The essence of healing is normalizing your body’s neurochemical state to that of a safety profile, which is profoundly restorative. If your whole system is fired up and remains so, how can that happen? It can’t and won’t.
- Another core concept of solving pain is stimulating neuroplastic changes in your brain. You can cause your brain to change its structure based on where you place your attention (suppression doesn’t work). That means you have to move towards your vision of what you would like your life to be like instead of continually trying to fix your prior life. You cannot move forward until you let go of the past, especially your deepest wounds. Most people in chronic pain remain angry at the situations or people who have harmed them. The more legitimate your gripe, the harder it is to move on. But how does holding onto the past make your life more enjoyable?
- Anger is destructive, as it is supposed to be. It's your body’s last ditch effort to escape threat. It is destructive in every direction, including self-destructive. It is the reason why many people completely neglect every aspect of their health.
- Anger is abusive and destroys relationships. The key element of successful human interactions is awareness of your needs and others’ needs. How else can you constructively interact with those close to you. Anger completely blocks awareness at every level.
- Anger destroys families. We evolved language and the human consciousness through language and social interactions. It is the ability to cooperate that took homo sapiens from the bottom to the top of the food chain. There is a deep need for human connection. Unfortunately, close family connections are also the strongest triggers. Why would you ever be unkind to someone you care for so much? Why is the incidence of domestic abuse so high? It is maybe the most disturbing paradox of our human existence.
- When you are angry, you are in the fight mode of the survival response of fight, flight, freeze, or faint. Your body’s response is to mobilize every resource to survive. The blood supply to your gut, bladder, and the frontal lobes of your brain diminishes and is shunted to your heart, lungs, and skeletal muscles. You can’t think clearly, although it might seem like you are. That is why it is so critical to, “take no action in a reaction.”
I often asked my patients with chronic pain, "What is your day like when you are angry?" Forget about your pain. It isn’t a great day. So regardless of whether you are in pain or not, anger will compromise your capacity to enjoy your day. You are in hell and you may be so used to being there that you might not even know it. Take a deep breath and think about this scenario for a while.
There are three parts to processing anger:
- Lowering your levels of stress hormones and inflammatory markers
- Learning to feel vulnerable – not being vulnerable
Essentially for every person who I have seen experience deep healing, it occurs when they are able to deeply process anger. So why would everyone not want to give this gift to themselves? First, we are geared to survive and few people are willing to give up the power of anger. However, maybe even a more important factor is that they can’t. You cannot let go of anger if you are unable to tolerate being vulnerable.
The first step of learning vulnerability is to understand the necessity of tolerating it and allowing yourself to be more human. Your connection to yourself and to your family, friends, and colleagues will flourish and your journey away from pain will continue.