Health

Repressed Anger

April 8, 2021

Anger is the black sheep of human emotions. Kids get in trouble for being angry, teenagers are told they have mental issues and adults repress anger to the point they don’t even know they feel it. But anger should be embraced and I’ll explain why.

Anger as a Toddler 

Imagine anger as a toddler. You don’t want the toddler to drive the car because you will die. That said, you also don’t want to shove the toddler in the trunk. So what do you do? The happy solution is that you drive the car and the toddler goes in a car seat in the back. Yes, they will scream and cry but you are the adult who is in control and they are the child who does what you say. This is the ideal relationship to have with anger.

repressed anger

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Repressed vs Suppressed Anger

There is a difference between repressed and suppressed anger (one is good and one is bad). Suppressed anger is when you are angry but not ready to deal with it at the moment. For example, you are at a party and your partner is excessively flirting with someone else. In this moment, you decide to suppress your anger and deal with the situation once you guys get home. This is healthy as long as you do eventually express yourself.

However, let’s say you’re at a party and your partner is flirting excessively with someone but you decide not to say something because you don’t like confrontation. This is repressed anger. Your partner proceeds to flirt with people in front of you at various events and parties and you “cope with it” by not reacting. Over time, you might become unconscious of the behavior because you have repressed it.

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Consequences of Repressed Anger

Repressed anger is detrimental. When a person represses anger, their body suffers both physical and psychological problems. Research has linked emotional repression to decreased immune system function which means you get sick more often and recover more slowly. In addition, stress, anxiety and depression creep in as your emotions get bottled up. There are also physical consequences of repressed anger that you might not think is related:

  • Muscle tension and pain
  • Digestive problems
  • Appetite changes
  • Fatigue and sleep problems

So get angry! It doesn’t have to be serious, dramatic anger — but stop acting like life is perfect and you are happy all the time. Life can be shitty and if you don’t admit that and feel the shitty moments when they happen, you risk not feeling the good moments as intimately as you could. A life without anger is a life without boundaries and a life without a sense of self.

Repressed anger

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The Boiling Point 

I once worked with a girl who habitually repressed her anger and it drove me nuts. She was smart, worked hard but never got promoted and never received credit for her work. She smiled and put her head down like a dummy pretending nothing was wrong.

I wasn’t around to see what eventually unfolded but apparently she cracked. Her boss had asked her for a report that she had emailed him the week before because he said it was urgent. When she realized the report was not urgent and that her boss didn’t even remember asking for it, she exploded. She screamed in his face, threw things and lost total control.

This is not an appropriate response especially because she could have rectified the situation long ago. She wasted her life and career opportunities by shutting out her anger and refusing to stick up for herself.

Why Irrational Anger Happens

Embracing your full range of emotions and showing up for your own life is crucial to being authentic. That said, some people use anger as a crutch and irrational anger serves no purpose. For example, I saw a guy at the grocery store yell at the cashier because something he purchased didn’t ring up with the proper discount. Maybe he was having a bad day or is struggling financially — but he let the toddler (anger) drive his car instead of putting the kid in the back seat.

There is a reason why some people can’t control their anger. repressed angerThe human brain has something called an amygdala which is overly emotional, sensitive and reactive. Near the amygdala is the prefrontal cortex which primarily uses logic and reason.

If you’re predisposed to irrational anger, you will “flip your lid” which is to say the prefrontal cortex disconnects and the sensitive, emotional amygdala is left alone to run the show. This is how someone ends up yelling at a cashier over a bag of chips.

How to Embrace Anger

We are all terrified of being hurt and our fear drives our decisions. Some people express fear as irrational anger, while others express it by denying anger exists. You should establish a healthy relationship with your anger so it doesn’t hang around and cause problems in other areas of your life.

The first step is to be aware of anger. Mindfulness supports communication between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. When emotions are high, the prefrontal cortex (wisdom and logic) can stay in better contact with the amygdala if you commit to exercising mindfulness:

Breathe

Deep breaths activate the parasympathetic nervous system which sends signals throughout the body to soothe and relax when your body is experiencing tension or repressing feelings such as anger.

Name It

This is easy in theory, but hard in practice. When you feel angry — just say it aloud. Say it to yourself, email it to yourself, text your best friend, whatever. Acknowledge the emotion, feel it, ponder it and sit with it.

Do It Differently

As the anger comes up, ask yourself: How can I do this differently this time? Should I express it? Why do I feel hurt? Who am I hurting by responding this way? How can I be more compassionate towards myself and those affected by this emotion?

Inquire

One of my favorite quotes is “Don’t get furious, get curious.” Anger is a powerful tool that shows you what you care deeply about. I like to say that anger protects the heart. Instead of seeing anger as a shameful emotion, take advantage of it by learning about yourself and exploring what it is trying to show you.