A true story of anger…and the dark side of stress
There have been many times in my life when I felt angry. It is a common and very normal emotion that serves us well, for the most part, but sometimes anger can be so great that it becomes unhealthy. In fact, there were three occasions when my anger was so unhealthy that it had a physical effect on my body as well as an outward effect on my relationships. More on that in a minute. As I look back, all three of those events happened when I was under a huge amount of stress. While many of you will think, “Well okay, Mr. Obvious, tell me something I don’t know about stress and anger,” I think it is important to contrast those three major episodes with the more mundane occurrences, so bear with me.
So we all get a little annoyed when traffic is bad and someone cuts us off or passes in the emergency lane to avoid waiting in line, like the rest of the civilized world. We might throw out a few expletives or perhaps a few ugly hand gestures and then we sigh and get back to driving.
In a similar situation at the store, a person might be ahead of you in the 15-items-or-less line with no less than 30 items. Then the person has a dozen coupons and ends up paying in loose change, which seems to defy all logic and all but stops time. The annoyance boils up and anger manifests in the rolling of eyes, a deep sigh, and mumbling under the breath. Of course, that anger passes once we get our turn to check out expeditiously.
I am sure everyone reading this article knows exactly what I am talking about. Those are the daily annoyances that raise our ire, but for the most part, we manage them pretty well. So, do we need anger at all? In our politically correct world, it really has become taboo to show anger. Showing anger can lead to dismissal from work or detention at school. It can even lead to guilt and shame for the angry person and persecution by those who revile anger/angry people.
Anger has its place. It is the “X-FACTOR” we call on when in conflict. It has value in self-defense when we must protect ourselves (or loved ones) from abuse or assault. It helps us step out of our mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll to become the fearsome Mr. Hyde. It can serve as a deterrent. Much like barking and raised hackles of a guard dog, anger can scare the enemy away in some cases. Lastly, I believe that anger is a venting mechanism to relieve stress when we are feeling like we might explode…and yet we are taught and expected not to show anger. Should we keep it all inside?
Let’s get into the dark side of stress. Anger that is unhealthy requires resolution. Stuffing it deep down inside is a guaranteed way to develop both physical and mental symptoms as follows:
- Insomnia – sleeplessness or the inability to have effective sleep
- High blood pressure – a physical manifestation that can lead to heart problems or stroke
- Rage – a mental manifestation of anger that has gotten so far out of control that logic and rational thinking are replaced by instinctual urges
- Headache – another physical symptom of anger related to high blood pressure
- Poor digestion – including upset stomach, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and so forth
- Skin problems – eczema and hives are common symptoms exacerbated by anger
Isolation and depression – avoiding other people due to feeling hopeless and helpless
As I mentioned above, there have been three times, I can easily recall, when stress led to unhealthy anger. When left unresolved, that anger became toxic. The first time was at about age sixteen. I was a young and defiant teen living at home with a mother who was strict by modern standards. I did not sleep well. I felt trapped and even oppressed. I was unable to focus in school. I had stomach ulcers. I had been stuffing down anger for a long time and had no way to vent it out effectively. One day, I just felt like if I didn’t get away, I was going to explode, so I left home. As a result, I sabotaged my family relationships. I hurt the people who loved me most and ended up living like a vagabond (homeless) for several weeks before friends of the family took me in. I was fortunate they did.
The second time was about a decade later, while serving as a Soldier in the US Army. I had been under a lot of stress at work. My marriage was rocky. I was working very long hours and hadn’t slept much in about three days. A subordinate refused to do something simple and I blew up. I made a fool of myself ranting and raving. I am sure I lost his respect. My commander brought me in the office for serious counseling. I bottled up all of that guilt, shame, and pain. Then I sabotaged my relationship at home. It ended in divorce some months later. After divorce, I lost everything and was again, homeless.
The last time was shortly after returning from combat (again about a decade later). As if being in combat for 12 months wasn’t enough, returning and having no real purpose was worse. I felt abandoned by my leaders who didn’t know what to do with me (my position had been eliminated), and I was left with thoughts about my time overseas. I failed to reintegrate properly, and coming off combat duty was a major change. I made mistakes, rebelled against my leaders, and again, started sabotaging relationships. I stopped eating, exercising, and sleeping.
Do you see the pattern here? The frustration gets bottled up, anger grows, sleep is affected, and then the resulting sabotage of relationships makes for an out of control freight train of anger. Does this sound familiar? Do you have a family member in this situation? Are you personally walking in those shoes?
There is hope! All people have anger. Many manage it well. Sometimes anger can overwhelm us. Here are a few things that can help.
1. Vent that frustration out.
Nothing helps more than getting the bad feelings out. It might be cliché to go to the bartender or to your hairdresser to vent these things, but that is fairly common. As a clinical counselor, I would recommend going to someone who can assure you of confidentiality. A therapist or religious leader can guarantee confidentiality where a bartender, neighbor, and hairdresser do not, and getting help is courageous.
2. Three things most Americans fail to do, when under stress, are eating right, sleeping right, and exercising.
Your body is constantly fighting off stress like a virus. We must keep the body in tip-top shape to be able to endure stress. We need three healthy meals per day, six to eight hours of sleep each night, and some sort of physical exercise daily. This is HUGE when dealing with stress.
Three deep breaths in and out with good posture and a focus on letting go of anger is an easy and effective way to minimize stress. The body’s natural response to stress is to move into fight or flight. That dumps adrenaline and cortisol into the body and as a result we breathe in short, shallow breaths. We can change that with the three deep breaths and a little focus. We can get out of fight or flight and back into life.
Stress is a part of life. Frustration and anger follow stress for many of us. If you feel like your relationships, work, or physical health have been affected by stress and anger, give us a call. Thriveworks has a variety of experts who can help you manage stress and conquer anger. Call Thriveworks Maumelle today at 501-628-9066.