Dr. Gaudet: Ways to Harness Anger

Last week I was working on a deadline for my lawyer. My ex-husband and I are in a legal battle to determine child support for our four-year-old son. During this process, I've been shocked and saddened by the choices my ex has made.

I now needed to answer a slew of questions put forth by his lawyer and organize a huge number of documents. But I didn't have it in me. I sat and stared at the pile of papers for hours, feeling heavy, overwhelmed, and depressed.

Then a male friend of mine called to check in on me. I described the task at hand and told him how I was feeling, and he immediately said, "Well, it's time to put your game face on and *&#% him!" I laughed and felt my energy shift. He's right, I thought, and I allowed myself to get in touch with my anger toward my ex.

Using a black magic marker, I wrote my friend's directive on a piece of paper and taped it above my desk. I then turned to the pile of documents with new resolve and energy.

I share this story because I believe it says a lot about women's relationship with anger. The occasional female hothead aside (for whom anger comes naturally), it's not the emotion we lead with. As I say often, I don't "do" anger; many patients I work with tend to avoid their anger as well. Instead, we jump over it, expressing emotions we're more comfortable with.

Empathy works for me; when someone angers me, I quickly focus on the pain he or she must be in to have done something hurtful. (We see the extreme form of this dynamic in women who empathize with their abusers.) Turning anger inward is another well-traveled path, one characterized by depression or the belief that you've done something to deserve the action that hurt you. But whether or not we blame ourselves for the situation, we often think (consciously or not) that we can do something to avoid it in the future -- and thus become "over-adapters." All the while, we avoid the experience of anger altogether.

Men are typically much more comfortable with both the concept and the experience of anger. Research shows that when a conflict arises in a game, girls typically walk away, while boys use the conflict to inspire them. Hence my friend's advice, which directly linked the sports metaphor ("put your game face on") to the expression of anger ("and *&#% him").

By no means should women reflexively try to behave like men when it comes to anger. But the way men harness their anger holds important lessons for us. As it turns out, the consequences of being at the extreme ends of the anger spectrum (suppressing it or staying in a state of rage) can reach far beyond the immediate conflict, with potentially serious effects on your health, not to mention your happiness. By understanding how your body and mind process anger, you can find a balanced path.

It Starts in the Brain
It's no secret that, generally speaking, men are more quick to respond with anger, while women seem more programmed to reflect and avoid conflict. Interestingly, there seems to be a biological basis for this. Men have a larger amygdala, the part of the brain that responds to anger, fear, and aggression. Women, on the other hand, have more brain circuits for controlling these emotions. As Louann Brizendine, M.D., describes it in her book, The Female Brain, when women's brains were evolving, they "developed an additional step in processing and avoiding conflict and anger, a series of circuits that hijack the emotion and chew on it, the same way a cow has an extra stomach that rechews its food before it is digested." There was an evolutionary purpose for this delayed reaction. "In the wild, the loss of a relationship with a protective male provider could have spelled doom. Cautiously holding her anger back may also have saved a female and her offspring from retaliation from men." So in not constantly flying off the handle, a woman was more likely to secure a stable situation for herself and her children.

So what does all of this mean for our health? Dozens of studies tell us that emotional volatility does harm. A recent study of older adults showed that those with explosive temperaments have increased calcium deposits in their coronary arteries. While the study didn't determine a causal link, we know that rage and hostility trigger sudden increases in heart rate and blood pressure, which weaken blood-vessel walls. And we know that rage can produce high levels of stress hormones, which trigger a cascade of physical and emotional reactions.

Since women tend to be less explosive, many of us avoid these health risks. But suppressing anger spells health trouble, too. A recent study showed that women who didn't speak their minds in conflicts with their spouses were four times more likely to die in the next 10 years compared with women who aired their feelings. Suppressing anger, or "self-silencing," was also linked with higher rates of depression and disordered eating. I'm willing to bet that the part of the brain designed to function as that "second stomach," allowing us to process conflict before reacting, also serves as a reservoir for unspoken anger. As this study suggests, women who don't express their feelings hold on to them instead, chewing them over and over -- and suffering the health consequences. This can be unconscious; even when women think they're over something, their body and soul can still be holding tightly on to it.

Finding a Middle Path
We know that the two anger extremes, rage and silence, have huge pitfalls. But it's entirely possible to forge a middle way, one that starts with being conscious of your own tendencies. Be aware that, given our programming, we're at risk of jumping over the emotion and going straight to smoothing things over or keeping the peace. Being able to harness your anger takes practice (see How to Get Mad), but the results are worth it.

In my case, I'd probably still be staring at those papers had it not been for my male friend's advice. Instead, I tapped my anger, used it for the task at hand, and got the overwhelming job done. It turned out to be cathartic, both to dive into the paperwork and to let myself experience some of the raw emotions I had been unconsciously sidestepping.

Finally, it's important to realize that anger is often the voice of your soul. Since it usually arises when some part of you feels in danger, suppressing this signal is akin to ignoring a smoke detector or a fire alarm -- not a good idea. If you don't attend to the alarm, it will keep sounding. The ensuing emotions will continue, often finding something or someone else to attach to (which can be confusing both to you and those around you). The most important step, as with a fire alarm, is finding the source of the flames. As it turns out, our tendency as women to stay calm, reflect, and resolve conflict can be of great value during this discovery process. By honoring our anger, we can begin to understand it, use it, and, finally, release it.

Text by Dr. Tracy Gaudet

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