Because anger is such a powerful and socially stigmatized emotion, or because we fear that we cannot control it, all too often, we hold on to it and try not to express it publicly, only to find that it eventually emerges, regardless of our efforts to suppress it, get over it, or get on with it.
This way of dealing (or not dealing) with anger is commonplace, particularly for those of us who were raised to be "good girls and boys," or raised with the notion that anger is a “bad” feeling and we are “bad” for having it.
When anger is perceived as an unacceptable aspect of our emotional selves, it is driven underground, sometimes to the point of becoming consciously inaccessible, where it simmers and steams, like a brew in a pot with the lid on tight, ready to blow. Unfortunately, when suppressed and left unresolved, anger tends to boil over at inconvenient times and in hurtful ways.
Unresolved anger can often be found at the root of things when we find ourselves responding overly-aggressively or acting passive-aggressively. Unresolved anger can also be found at the root of the choice to self-medicate with things like alcohol, illicit substances, or food. Unresolved anger may also be turned inward, contributing to depression or a cynical, hostile, or critical attitude in our world view and interpersonal relationships.
No matter how aware we may be of the importance of finding constructive outlets for our anger, accessing, acknowledging, and processing it can be a true challenge because it is one of the few emotions that rarely dissipates just by venting -- in fact, just talking about it can sometimes make it worse.
As healthcare professionals, anger is a powerfull, yet often over-looked aspect of our work lives. We naturally feel anger when we are threatened in some way -- during times of crisis and stress, when we are fatigued or overburdened, or confronted with frightening, sad, unjust, ugly events.
There can be anger at the disease, anger at the limitations of modern medicine, anger at our patients when they don’t adhere to protocols, anger at our colleagues when we feel alone in our work, anger at a higher power (if we believe in one) for letting all of this happen, at ourselves (for so many reasons), anger emerging as a way of masking or protecting ourselves from the pain of loss, even anger at the fact that we feel angry to begin with (anger tends to beget anger).
The question becomes, what do we do with it?
- Recognize and accept that anger and feeling angry is a natural and healthy part of who we are as human beings.
- Find non-aggressive ways to articulate anger. Clear and assertive communication can yield positive outcomes but aggression tends to feed anger rather than diminish it.
- Engage in active physical expression. This is the "hit a pillow" idea: exercise, play a competitive sport, scream, practice yoga or tai-chi, or take a walk in nature.
- Engage in quiet physical expression. Practice relaxation and breathing exercises, guided imagery, meditations, affirmations or internal-dialogues ("relax," "take it easy," "this will pass"), journal, or listen to music.
- Engage in creative expression. Paint, draw, sculpt, make music, craft, dance.
- Channel it. Anger is a motivating emotion, it makes us want to “do” something. We can use it to rant and rave, or we can use it create a new system that works better, to become an advocate, to raise money for a cause, etc.
There are no rights or wrongs when it comes to consciously managing one’s anger. For most of us, it takes a combination of techniques and strategies to deal with anger in healthy and productive ways over time. A life-long project, attention to anger management may yield great benefits in terms of our psychological, social, emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being.