In a recent blog article, I wrote about post-traumatic stress syndrome, in which some trauma causes recurring anger and fear, sometimes years—even a lifetime—after the precipitating event. This post is about anger in general and is largely taken from “Why Am I So Angry?”, an episode of the Chasing Life podcast.
Jesus sees anger as a serious problem. Matthew 5:22 has him say, “But I tell you that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause will be in danger of the judgment.” Ephesians 4:26 reads, “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry….”
These verses indicate that anger per se is not a sin unless it is “without a cause” or unless it becomes a grudge; and this viewpoint accords with modern psychology. Anger is simply an emotion, the mere feeling of which is perfectly normal in us human beings.
Its injurious effects come from hardening into a habit that repeatedly recurs. In that case, the adrenaline and cortisol released with anger continually course through the body, damaging the cardiovascular system and possibly leading to heart attack or stroke. Sustained anger may also cause cramping, bloating, and inflammation of the digestive system, not to mention symptoms like headache, anxiety, and even depression. Repressing anger, i.e., not outwardly expressing what is inwardly felt, has similar effects. So, a healthy reaction to either type of anger is to defuse it before it becomes a long-lasting resentment.
Venting to friends, unfortunately, will not alleviate negative arousal. Venting is just rehearsing, practicing, re-living the anger. Nor will strenuous exercise lessen rage or irritation. Although an angry person may “feel” better after, say, running a mile, exercise stresses the body and keeps the adrenaline flowing that started with the anger episode. The idea is to stop the stress response, to stop the extra adrenaline and cortisol pouring into the bloodstream.
Quakers, fortunately, have a traditional method of dealing with such stress. Social activism can channel anger and remove its physiological insult. If, for example, an African American Friend suffers through a day of microaggressions, he or she can find emotional and physical relief in racial justice work. If a Quaker loses a friend or—God forbid—a family member to gun violence, that Friend may mitigate anger by working for gun control.
I personally am not inclined toward activism; but I find that when someone angers me, I can usually calm down by repeating the phrase “that of God,” thereby reminding myself that my annoyer deserves respect. I feel less agitated as I remember that God is to be found in the person provoking me.
Chasing Life describes other ways of coping with anger. Counting to ten is like my “that of God” repetition. Taking deep breaths may help. Later, a soothing bath or calming music may be helpful. Meditation can do wonders if the anger persists.
Persistent anger may involve rumination—repeatedly replaying in the mind an upsetting incident. Thinking of something else, distracting oneself may be the solution, i.e., working on a crossword puzzle or reading a book.
A change of perspective is often needed. Imagine the situation as seen by a third person or a “fly on the wall.” Ask yourself if all this will really matter in a hundred years (or even one year).
In a confrontation between two people, the aroused parties tend to lean toward each other, i.e., “get in the other person’s face.” Try leaning back from the other person.
It’s hard to feel two emotions at once. Try pushing out anger with emotions of humor, love, or empathy. To feel humorous watch a comedy on Netflix or look at comics. For love, pet a puppy or kiss someone. For empathy, help someone in need.
Of course, in this polarized society of ours, there’s a general, social anger.
How can we decrease the hostility of a whole nation? Well, since any large population consists of individuals, those individuals who successfully apply the above techniques will incrementally reduce the general animus. We’re looking to make progress and shouldn’t expect an instant solution to a large-scale problem. And, if I may address liberal Friends (as well as myself), don’t obsessively watch CNN.
~ Richard Russell
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