For many years, I was angry. I was so angry that it became one of the defining traits of my character, as my master’s advisor noted in the recommendation letter he wrote for me, describing me as “a pugilist with a mind that gives off sparks like steel on flint.” People often mistook my anger for courage, but it wasn’t bravery at all. It was anger. And it was corrosive. in my forthcoming memoir, I describe the final straw that broke the camel’s back of my anger, a fight I had with my boyfriend during which I behaved quite badly. That day, I finally just stood back from myself and watched in horror. What was I doing? What had I become? It had to stop.
While anger is no doubt justified in many cases—and possibly served to help me survive some challenges in my early life—holding onto it and nurturing it, letting it define you, can literally destroy you.
In a study of 12,986 people published in Circulation, those with the highest levels of anger had twice the risk of coronary artery disease and three times the risk of heart attack. Anger triggers the release of stress hormones into the body, with a wide spectrum of negative effects. Findings like these have led public health experts like Laura Kubzansky, PhD, MPH, of Harvard University School of Public Health to say anger might be more damaging to health than obesity or smoking.
But in a world filled with injustice, how can we avoid letting anger eat us alive?
The key, according to the American Psychological Association, is not to ignore or internalize anger, but rather to learn and practice productive ways of expressing it, coupled with forgiveness. Research indicates that women are prone to internalizing anger, which often leads to depression. So, ladies, let it out, but do it the right way.
- Healthy Confrontation. Yes, that’s right. Let the source of your anger know they’ve done something wrong, but use constructive communication techniques. Confrontation is not the same thing as fighting.
- Maintain the Relationship. Examine your own role. Was there anything you might have done that helped lead to the situation? You cannot change others, but you can change yourself. Be honest with yourself. Do unto others.
- Take Control. People can’t do to you what you don’t allow them to do. What I mean by this is that while, yes, someone might discriminate against you, it is up to you whether you allow their ignorance to anger you, hold you back or lessen your sense of self. Set limits with people. Let them know what is acceptable to you and what is not.
- Talk to Someone. Don’t gossip. Rather, find a therapist or trusted friend or family member to vent to. Make sure this doesn’t turn into something that escalates your anger, though. Find a steady, calm person to share your feelings with instead of someone who will just rile you up more.
- Exercise and Meditate. A healthy, centered body can handle everything better, including anger.
- Forgive. Religions, philosophies and psychologies all over the world emphasize the power of forgiveness. Forgiving is often mistaken for accepting, but they are not the same. You can forgive while also clearly establishing a boundary so that the offense never happens again.
I have learned firsthand how well these techniques work. In the past year I have begun to try a new approach to anger, one focused upon constructive communication, healthy boundaries and forgiveness. The results have been amazing and liberating!