What we call anger isn’t anger. At least not completely.
What we call anger is a stress response.
A response to old wounds we haven’t healed.
A reaction to fear.
A resistance to sadness.
What we call anger looks like yelling or hitting (or throwing banana bread). It looks like hurtful behavior.
But that’s not anger.
Anger happens when someone’s getting hurt. Maybe our own feelings are being hurt or we have the impression that someone else is in danger of being hurt. And it’s possible to be angry without having a stress response. But before I teach you how to do that, it’s helpful to learn about the thing we call a “stress response” so you can learn to separate the two.
The stress response: it’s instinctual. Your body’s natural reaction to danger. When someone’s in actual danger, the stress response is a gift. It’s actually life-saving.
The problem is that sometimes we have a stress response when no one’s in actual danger. That’s when we end up being hurtful.
To be helpful, when you get angry, notice. Notice if you’re having a stress response. Try to take a break and ask yourself: Who do I think is getting hurt? Is it me? Is it someone else?
You might have the impression that you’re getting hurt, even if you’re simply feeling ignored. That was me. I used to get rage-full when I felt ignored by my kids. It was an old wound from growing up feeling ignored as a child.
You might be wondering: What does a stress response look like? Here’s a checklist to get you started.
The stress response varies from person to person, but there are some things we have in common. When I lead group discussions, I hear these descriptions a lot:
> Feeling short of breath, like there’s a weight on your chest.
> Feeling like you’ve been punched in the stomach. It causes you to be protective, to kind of ball up your body with hunched shoulders.
> Tight shoulders, neck and jaw. The tongue pushes up against the roof of the mouth.
(Here’s an interesting note about the “tight neck” sensation I learned from one of the people in my support network. She’s a cranial sacral therapist. In other words, she’s professionally trained in the nervous system and how to help the system relax with gentle touch, like massage. She says there’s a nerve at the base of the skull called the vagus nerve. When you’re stressed out, the nerve is unhappy and it plays a part in creating the stress response. In my experience, an unhappy vagus nerve kind of feels like tight neck muscles. Thankfully, the gentle massage-like action from a cranial sacral therapist makes the nerve happy and helps relieve the stress response. Yay for science and biology, because we can use knowledge like this to help ourselves, even for stress and parenting our kids.)
> Tense butt and thighs, like you want to run. The stress response is also called the “fight, flight or freeze response” for a reason — because you do basically want to do one of those things: fight, run or freeze in position (those of us who clam up, who stop talking, know all about “freeze”).
> The sensation of heat or tingling, sometimes in the eyes, ears, head, or any of the previously mentioned areas (shoulders, butt, etc). There’s a reason people use the phrase “blow my lid,” because sometimes it does feel like a hot volcano at the top of your head (there’s also an emoji to this effect).
So those are some of the physical sensations you might experience as a stress response. In addition to a physical sensation, you might also have a psychological one: the desire to connect with others. Getting in touch with others makes sense instinctually, because if you were in real danger, it’d be a good idea to find safety working with other people. But in this case, it looks like calling your friend to vent or getting online and writing about what jerks your kids or husband are.
When you decide to get help for your anger, the folks who usually support your venting (and agree with you) aren’t the ones you want to get help from. They support your anger habit. Instead, you want to reach out to professionals who can help you break those habits that are keeping you down.
And if you’re reading this, those old habits probably are keeping you down. They’re stressing you out and preventing you from living your best life. The good news is: You can do this. I did. And I’ve helped others. So loosen that jaw, relax your neck, take a deep breath and dive in. Take the next step in your healing. You know what you need to do. Do it. I support you. <3
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