Today’s big idea is that there can be many, many reasons why you might feel angry on a regular basis. And these are helpful to be aware of because I think we can kind of wave anger off as just being part of our personality or something inevitable that you can only learn how to manage. There’s nothing wrong with anger management strategies, which are fine but, to use a healthcare analogy, learning how to manage anger is trying to mitigate symptoms, instead of treating the root cause. Let’s look at some of the many, many things that can give rise to anger so that you can see what root causes that you might be able to address.
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Root causes of anger fall into three basic categories: physiological, emotional, and collective.
Let’s start with the physiological sources of anger
Because most of my listeners are women, I’ve gotta start with hormones. Whether you’re pre-menstrual, peri-menopausal, or menopausal, the drop in estrogen you’re experiencing can make you irritable. I posted an image on Instagram this week with many symptoms of perimenopause on it, and someone left a comment that said, “What about RAGE???” lol. Plunging estrogen levels really can make you feel angry.
Another hormonal root of anger can be a lack of physical touch and emotional connection can lead to low levels of oxytocin, aka the love hormone. Oxytocin helps you feel blissed out and relaxed and if it’s short supply well, yeah, you’re going to feel every little irritant more acutely.
Other physical triggers of anger include a lack of sleep, which makes emotional regulation harder, and an overuse of alcohol, which can impair impulse control and rob you of good sleep, so it’s a double whammy.
In Traditional Chinese medicine, the liver is associated with anger. And the liver metabolizes many things, including alcohol, estrogen, and sugar–so if you’re overworking your liver, your overall anger levels can rise. To that end, if you’re over-relying on sugary, salty, and fatty processed foods–maybe you’re super busy and don’t feel you have time to make healthier food–that can impair your liver and your chemical balance and leave you to feel angry and wiped out.
I think it’s interesting that about 10% of people with depression experience irritability and 40% have outbursts of anger. Anger is also a symptom of other mental illnesses including anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, and even ADHD.
Let’s talk about the emotional underpinnings of anger.
Anger can be a great messenger that something is amiss. Whether that’s an actual threat, like an anger response to a car almost crashing into you, or something a little more subtle. Like, feeling unappreciated. Or, feeling taken advantage of. Or like your boundaries aren’t being respected. These are all really important messages for you to receive.
Anger can also be a manifestation of another emotion that you don’t really want to feel, such as sadness, or grief, fear, or feeling vulnerable.
Some of this is societal–we’re more comfortable with anger as a whole than we are with vulnerability. On a personal level, anger makes you feel strong, while these other emotions can make you feel like you are weak. After all, anger can feel pretty darn good in the moment, it’s got this hard candy shell of righteousness that’s a lot more tempting to pick up than feeling betrayed, or gutted, or scared.
So a lot of times when we have occasion to feel these other perfectly normal but less socially acceptable emotions we sublimate them, and try to drive them down to the basement. Except you can’t really will emotions away. Once they’re down there, they go through your subconscious pasta maker, and pop out the other end as rage, or indignation, or irritability.
And finally, there can be collective sources of anger, too
These are things like racism, sexism, poverty, and politics. And the stress of things we’re all facing, like the pandemic and climate change. These can be unrelenting stressors that also make us feel powerless-a combo that is a recipe for anger.
I learned a lot about how anger can be the front man for other emotions in my early 30s. At that time, I had a capital-B breakup with a guy I thought I would marry. He ended up falling in love with someone else–news that came out just a couple weeks after we had moved in together. Well, actually, the breakup happened a couple weeks after we moved in together–the news of his new relationship didn’t come out until a mutual friend told me what was up a few weeks after that. I was royally pissed. Just mad, mad, mad all day long.
I was doing my yoga teacher training at the time and doing a ton of yoga and also meditating. I would just sit there and seethe. At first it felt good–that righteous thing I was talking about–but then it got old. I felt trapped. I asked my meditation teacher, who was a Tibetan Buddhist–what do I do with all this anger? He told me to look under the rock to see what else was under there. Was it sadness? Was it grief? Because anger can often be just the visible tip of a glacier of other emotions.
I can tell you I did NOT want to look under that rock. But I did, And I let that sadness in, and I cried everywhere for a few weeks. On friends’ couches. On the bus. In the movie theater. Standing outside restaurants. It was a real cry fest, and it was also one of the most freeing things that ever happened to me. SO, as you do today’s tiny assignment, keep this Joseph Campbell quote in mind, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek.”
Daily Tiny Assignment
As for your tiny assignment, it’s to do a quick little assessment. Are there physiological reasons why you might feel angry? Could you be tired? Are your hormones in flux? Have you been over-relying on alcohol lately? Have you been skipping meals or getting by on packaged stuff? Could you be experiencing a bout of depression? Is there a provider you could check in with to help you see what might be going on?
And then ask yourself, what am I tolerating? This can be a very helpful question for assessing where maybe you have a boundary that needs shoring up or you need to use your anger to motivate you to make some kind of a change.
And finally, be brave and look underneath the rock, and see what other emotions might be hiding underneath your anger. Gloria Steinem says the truth will set you free, but first you will feel angry and it will piss you off. This is how you get passed the pissed off part, and get to the free part.
Come back tomorrow
When I’m interviewing master coach and expert on emotional abuse and navigating difficult conversations, Andrea J Lee, for her insights and strategies on bringing some balance to your experience of anger. I love Andrea, a lot, and I think you will too.