Anger is a natural emotion, and it’s one that we all experience from time to time. Unfortunately, unchecked anger can have damaging effects on both our physical and mental health – leading to angry outbursts, burnout, fatigue, anxiety, and even depression. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to start releasing built-up anger in a healthy way so that it doesn’t lead to chronic stress, chronic anger, and even rage.
Most articles discussing how to let go of anger simply promote relaxation techniques like deep breathing, discuss how important it is to reduce stress, or focus on the topic of forgiveness. In this blog post, we’ll explore what anger actually is, where it comes from, how to address the root causes, and ultimately: how to let go of anger and regain control.
Anger is not a “Negative Emotion”
Despite its widespread misperception, anger is not inherently a negative emotion. Anger is totally normal and can be used in healthy ways to express one’s needs and boundaries, as well as to improve relationships and communication. In fact, it’s an important emotion that helps people identify when something is wrong, or they’re being taken advantage of.
When our nervous system perceives something as unfair or threatening, a protective reaction that is beyond our control is triggered in the body. Anger is the cognitive meaning we attach to this protective, body-based reaction. Ultimately, anger is part of a healthy body response that aims to keep you safe.
While it is not necessarily a bad thing to feel angry, staying angry is what takes a toll on our physical and mental health.
Anger is a Messenger
Anger and resentment are not simply the result of frustration, a bad temper, or the inability to forgive. It often surfaces when there are deeper emotions that have been bottled up and stored in the subconscious brain. These emotions are connected to specific bodily sensations that have been shut down, often for many years.
Anger is reactivity at its core, and it’s often one of the first emotions to show up in our healing journey, especially for people who have grown up with avoidant parents or parents with avoidance tendencies. Anger can trigger overwhelming feelings of shame and self-judgment that keep us feeling blocked or stuck.
I like to consider anger a messenger, and see it through the lens of self-protection.
Scientifically, we don’t yet have a deep understanding of anger, and its neurobiological mechanisms are still very much debated, but we do know that it’s associated with what we perceive as unfair behavior.
We also know that while the primary reaction originates in the amygdala, anger is largely processed in the cortical brain, where we attach meaning and judgment to the experience of reactivity that we call anger.
It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective that the cortex has evolved to contain and limit this aggression because we must live in a group to survive – but this comes at a cost.
And the cost is that we suppress the message that anger is there to deliver, and it is a message of perceived injustice.
Why Mainstream Approaches to “Managing” Anger Don’t Work
Mainstream approaches to “managing” anger don’t work well because they approach an emotional, body-based reaction with cognition and behavioral control.
The problem is that if we approach anger from a cognitive lens, that message is going to remain bottled up and stored at the body level, and it can resurface over and over, making us feel terrible about ourselves and sometimes even resulting in physical symptoms. It’s very hard to think your way out of anger.
The work that needs to be done is to accept this big, scary “demon” and bowing our heads to it. Instead of getting caught in never-ending cycles of shame and self-judgment, we can decide to welcome this messenger with self-compassion and curiosity.
When we are experiencing hurt feelings and/or “negative emotions” that trigger anger and resentment, we must ask ourselves: What is the message?
What is the Root Cause of Anger?
Anger is a typical way in which we protect ourselves from feeling deep feelings of pain and sadness, that we didn’t feel were safe to feel when we were children. We learn to cope by bottling up these deep feelings and storing them away.
People often treat anger as a more acceptable emotion than sadness, grief, fear, etc. When feeling threatened, the threat is usually connected to some emotion that we haven’t fully processed because it wasn’t safe to do so. It wasn’t safe to be sad, it wasn’t safe to feel needy, it wasn’t safe to feel all these big, vulnerable feelings. And so our go-to reaction becomes anger.
This is why we can be triggered by things that apparently make no sense. Sometimes there’s not even a particular trigger – it’s just being in a situation, or being around some people, that creates a sense of anger. We often don’t understand it from a cognitive perspective.
However, as we now know, anger carries a message. It is important to allow the message of anger to be delivered and to listen to this message in order to heal anger from the root.
How to Really Let Go of Anger
And so rather than focusing on all the cognitive reasons like, “Why am I feeling anger in this situation? How can I be less triggered?”; the way we are going to heal from this anger is to allow the message to be delivered. Listen to this message, sit with what it is, and allow these protective mechanisms to feel that their job is no longer required.
When feeling angry, we must ask ourselves: What is this anger trying to protect me from? What is the underlying, scary, huge demon that I am so afraid to deal with? It may be a sense of rejection as a child, a sense of not being enough, a sense of not being loved, or a sense of not being worthy of the love of our parents.
We Cannot Let Go of Anger Until We Feel Safe Enough To Do So
Before we can accurately decipher the message anger is trying to send us, we need to work on building safety at the body level so that we feel we can hold a safe space for that anger.
We must start creating the conditions of safety as an adult, for that little wounded child to come out and express that sadness, that difficult emotion, that shameful emotion, that wasn’t safe to bring out in the past. Because we, as humans and adults, can hold a safe space for ourselves, for our vulnerability, for our sadness. We can process and sit with these painful emotions that are bottled up so they no longer feel so threatening.
To create safety in the body, it is important to recognize that our bodies are an integral part of the process of healing from anger and rage. Our bodies have their own innate wisdom – they know when something is safe or not, and when it is time for us to take action.
How to Create Safety in the Body to Let Go of Anger
The first step to creating safety in the body is cultivating awareness and learning to pay attention to what your body is telling you. This means noticing physical sensations like tension, tightness, and trembling; auditory cues such as racing heartbeats and shallow breathing; visual cues such as dilated pupils or perspiration; and any other signals your body may be giving you that indicate distress. Paying attention to these signals from your body helps you become aware of what your body needs in order to feel safe.
Once we become aware of these signals, we can begin to take steps to create a sense of safety for ourselves at the nervous system level. This is exactly what we teach inside The Nervous System Solution, the world’s first science-based program that shows you step-by-step how to build a regulated nervous system. Not only is a regulated nervous system key to your overall physical and mental health; it is the gateway to releasing the subconscious wounds your body is carrying that are keeping you from addressing the root cause of your anger.
Once the body feels safe, slowly, with time, we can be ready to pay attention and listen. What is the message this anger is trying to send me? Sometimes we are aware, but oftentimes this message has been buried below layers of shame. How dare I feel so angry and aggressive towards my parents, my siblings, or my children?
However, we can patiently uncover and bring awareness to what the message is. Sometimes the message comes from our very early years and so we may not have words for it. But this exploration inevitably leads us to something that must be acknowledged, accepted, processed, and let go of.
It gets complicated because often, for parents in their relationship with kids, or even in professional relationships, the messenger can be triggered, but the message is not related to the person or situation that initially caused it. And so we respond to that person or situation in a way that is exaggerated for the circumstances, leaving us feeling hurt and ashamed. This is called anger transference.
Don’t Forget – Healing Happens in Connection and Community
While addressing our subconscious beliefs and inner turmoil is a very personal journey, it is imperative to remember that healing happens in connection and community.
Healing from anger and rage can be a long process, and often requires reaching out for help from others such as a therapist, coach, or support group. This is because it is difficult to unpack and process the subconscious beliefs related to anger on one’s own, and it is even more difficult to build a regulated nervous system without the proper structure and support. Additionally, being in community with those who have shared similar experiences makes us feel less alone and more understood, helping to reinforce that sense of safety we need to heal.
Healing from anger and rage is complex, but it can be done. Cultivating awareness of the signals your body sends when you’re feeling angry or overwhelmed is an important first step to creating a sense of safety within yourself. Once this has been achieved, slowly start to explore what messages are buried beneath layers of shame that may have caused the initial outburst. It’s also crucial to remember that healing happens in connection and community; don’t hesitate to reach out for help if needed. With patience, dedication and understanding, releasing our subconscious beliefs related to anger will lead us toward greater inner peace and emotional well-being.