Robert Frost is quoted as saying, “The only way out is through.” This is often used in reference to difficult times, but it is true for difficult emotions, too. Things like anger, sadness, and even envy are tough emotions to experience. They don’t feel pleasant, however, they are important.
Let’s take anger for example. Believe it or not, anger has some good points. It is a biological emotion, which means that it exists for a reason – our system evolved over the eons and anger is part of the operating system. Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a lot of censoring of anger. People promoting tips and tricks to erase this emotion. The thing is… this isn’t helpful. These tricks only serve to anesthetize the anger, which actually makes it fester under the surface.
A Warning Beacon
What if we thought of anger as an alarm signal – to warn us and keep us safe? Our biology evolved our emotional system to protect us. So we can look at anger as a protective mechanism, not as something bad. We experience anger because there is something to be aware of. Anger is often responsible for letting us know when our boundaries have been crossed, when our values are at risk, or when we are not being true to ourselves. This warning signal also gives us motivational fuel to change what isn’t working. Pay attention to it. Rather than disavowing anger, take time to really look at it. Sit with it (but don’t take action) until you really understand what is making you angry.
Here’s the thing… anger is not the problem. It’s what we do when we’re angry that becomes the issue and causes suffering. This is usually due to the lack of coping skills we have to effectively express and direct the anger.
When we get really angry, we go immediately into “fight or flight” mode. The cortisol and other neurotransmitters get revved up and we’re flooded with emotion. We tend to become reactive and aren’t often consciously thinking about what we say or do. The challenge is to strengthen your basic coping skills that are built into your system.
Look [at your anger] Before You Leap
Before you take action on your anger, it’s helpful to explore the anger first – then you can more effectively express and direct it to a helpful outcome. One way to do this is through journaling. The physical and emotional benefits of journaling, as a catharsis of stressful events, have been widely researched by James Pennebaker (1997), as well as others.
According to Pennebaker’s research, writing about upsetting feelings or events in our lives can improve physical and mental health.
There are some specific approaches to journaling that his lab has found to be helpful.
Some tips include:
- Find a time and place where you won’t be disturbed, such as at the end of the workday or before going to sleep.
- Write for a minimum of 15 minutes a day for at least 3 consecutive days.
- Once you begin journaling, write continuously. Don’t be worried about spelling or grammar. Even if you run out of things to say before the 15 minutes, just keep writing.
- Write longhand or on a computer. If unable to write, you can also talk into a tape recorder.
- You can write about the same thing on all 3 or 4 days of writing or you can write about something different each day.
- Afterwards, you can do whatever you want to with the written material, for example, rip it up.
- The next time you feel an overwhelm of anger, pick up a pen and give it a try.
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