Most people express anger in ways that harms their health: Suppression, repression, or rage.
Read on to learn about those three unhealthy practices, and what you can do instead to release anger healthily (which I believe can be used for other emotions, too).
I first learned about this in Gabor Maté’s When the Body Says No, chapter 19.
Most people harm their health with ‘abnormal’ expression of anger
Gabor Maté and many other practitioners (e.g. the late medical doctor John Sarno) have found that abnormal expression of emotion, especially anger, can contribute to bad health and illness. Maté describes two ‘abnormal’ ways of expressing anger:
- Suppression or Repression
This means not releasing the anger; ‘holding it in’ somehow. If we choose to do that consciously, it’s called suppression; if we choose to do that unconsciously (such that we may not realise we’re doing it), it’s called repression.1
Rage is the unregulated acting-out and exaggerated venting of anger. In rage we experience tightening of the voice, shallow breathing, and muscle tension. Maté explains that rage is often confused with anger, but actually rage is not anger – it’s a form of anxiety.
In some cases of rage we might do things like unregulated shouting, verbal or physical violence, stress-rolling (taking out your anger on other people), etc.
Because these are unhealthy, we need to stop doing this and find a healthier way to experience anger instead.
How healthy anger looks and feels
For better health, we need a way to healthily experience anger, which Maté also calls a “genuine” or “real” experience of anger. Maté refers to Allen Kalpin, a physician and psychotherapist, to explain how we can do that.
Healthy anger, [Kalpin] says, is an empowerment and a relaxation. The real experience of anger “is physiologic experience without acting out. The experience is one of a surge of power going through the system, along with a mobilization to attack. There is, simultaneously, a complete disappearance of all anxiety.
“When healthy anger is starting to be experienced, you don’t see anything dramatic. What you do see is a decrease of all muscle tension. The mouth is opening wider, because the jaws are more relaxed, the voice is lower in pitch because the vocal cords are more relaxed. The shoulders drop, and you see all signs of muscle tension disappearing.”
Dr. Kalpin’s mode of therapy works along the lines first developed by Dr. Habib Davanloo of McGill University, Montreal. Davanloo made a practice of videotaping his clients during therapy encounters so that they themselves could see their bodily manifestations of emotion. Kalpin, too, tapes some of his psychotherapy sessions.
“In a tape of one of my clients, he describes powerful surges of electricity going through his body—and he talks about them as they’re happening—but outwardly he’s just sitting there describing it. If you’re watching the tape without the sound on, you’ll see a person looking quite focused and quite relaxed, but you wouldn’t necessarily even guess that the person was angry.”
Summary: Healthy Anger is allowing that ‘surge of power’. It doesn’t need acting out.
- A surge of power in your body. Some people might describe it like “surges of electricity”; I describe it as “waves”.
- It does not require any ‘acting out’: The body can remain still, the face and muscles can remain relaxed. From the outside you can look quite focused and quite relaxed; people may not even guess you’re angry.
- Allowing that surge of power to occur leads to a decrease in muscle tension, resulting in a relaxation. You may notice the ‘surge of power’ reducing in power until you feel relatively still and relaxed. You may feel that the anger has been ‘released’.
This is a healthy release of anger.
Anger is a physiological process. When we allow the surge of anger in this way, we allow that physiological process to occur and run its course.
By contrast: When we act in rage, we effectively distract ourselves from the emotion of anger and don’t allow it to happen. When we do repression or suppression, we don’t allow that surge of anger to properly occur and run its course.
Putting it into practice
From today, start to notice the physiological feeling of anger inside you. Notice how that “surge of power” feels to you. I don’t know whether it’ll feel like “powerful surges of electricity”, “waves” or something else – just notice how it feels for you.
As you become more aware of that surge of power inside you, you can start to allow that surge of power to occur and run its course. Sooner or later you might find that you can allow that surge of power without any ‘acting out’; so that your body can remain quite relaxed and still while it happens.
On the outside people might see nothing dramatic; just someone looking quite relaxed and perhaps focused.
And you might start to notice how experiencing and allowing the surge of power can lead to your muscle tension reducing; to a feeling of relaxation or stillness over time.
For me, it feels a bit like a ‘wave’ or ‘waves’ of power or sensation that go through my body, followed by a relaxed stillness inside me once the anger has been ‘released’.
After you can do the above
First, use the “putting it into practice” section. Once you’re able to experience anger as that ‘surge of power’ in your body, while your body remains still (perhaps leading to more relaxation as you get better at it), you can move on to this step.
Once we can experience anger as described above, we gain a new ability: We gain the choice about whether to act out anger or not. When we feel anger, it might be because we’re in a situation that requires action – and anger is our mind and body’s way to give us energy to execute that action.
So we can just experience the “surge of power” leading to relaxation, without acting it out as Dr. Kalpin describes above – or we can actually choose to use our anger constructively. This is different to rage because we’re choosing to act it out in a regulated and deliberate way, when it serves us.
Anger does not require hostile acting out. First and foremost, it is a physiological process to be experienced. Second, it has cognitive value—it provides essential information. Since anger does not exist in a vacuum, if I feel anger it must be in response to some perception on my part. It may be a response to loss or the threat of it in a personal relationship, or it may signal a real or threatened invasion of my boundaries. I am greatly empowered without harming anyone if I permit myself to experience the anger and to contemplate what may have triggered it. Depending on circumstances, I may choose to manifest the anger in some way or to let go of it. The key is that I have not suppressed the experience of it. I may choose to display my anger as necessary in words or in deeds, but I do not need to act it out in a driven fashion as uncontrolled rage. Healthy anger leaves the individual, not the unbridled emotion, in charge.
“Anger is the energy Mother Nature gives us as little kids to stand forward on our own behalf and say I matter,” says the therapist Joann Peterson, who conducts workshops on Gabriola Island, in British Columbia. “The difference between the healthy energy of anger and the hurtful energy of emotional and physical violence is that anger respects boundaries. Standing forward on your own behalf does not invade anyone else’s boundaries.”
Next, I invite you to explore how other emotions, positive and negative, can also be experienced as an internal surge of power like anger, leaving us feeling more relaxed, and also giving us choice about whether to act out our emotions or not.
Well done – you’re learning to experience emotion in a healthy and empowering way for the rest of your life.
Gabor Maté’s When the Body Says No explains how ‘hidden stress’ can result in a multitude of health issues. The final chapter explains the ‘7 A’s of Healing’: Maté’s 7 suggestions for how we can reduce hidden stress and improve our health. One of the 7 As is “Anger”.
This article has been my summary of the “Anger” section of that book.
I believe this information can help us understand how to healthily experience all emotion (positive and negative) – not just anger.
Gabor Maté’s When the Body Says No chapter 19, The Seven A’s of Healing