Tuesday 24 October 2017

The latest rage - how anger has health benefits

New research says anger has health benefits, writes Katie Byrne

The late Maya Angelou described anger as like fire, burning everything clean.
The late Maya Angelou described anger as like fire, burning everything clean.

I recently attended a seminar headed up by spiritual speaker Teal Swan. She's a controversial figure within the industry so it was in the spirit of intrigue rather than enthusiasm that I attended. I was pleasantly surprised. She shared a lot of original ideas and fascinating insights, especially around the subject of anger.

Swan has an unusual prescription for those who can't express their anger: a process she calls 'Anger Pages'.

She advises participants to find the angriest music they can find and listen to it while venting their spleen on paper.

There was a time when this process would have been anathema to my sensibilities. I always prided myself on overcoming anger by tempering it with tolerance and understanding.

I was appalled by road and air rage and any expression of emotion that involved rising decibels. Anger was an ugly, base emotion that was completely redundant in my view.

My sister explodes when she's angry. I used to chastise her for this while assuming a smug Zen-like superiority. Offer it up - pray for them - fa la la la la la - Namaste.

However, emerging research suggests that her emotional outbursts are probably a great deal healthier than my attitude of passivity.

Suppressing anger isn't virtuous; it's virulent. While people like my sister can detonate on demand, I'm in fact the ticking time bomb.

Researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health have discovered that those who hide their anger after an unjust act of aggression are more likely to get bronchitis and heart attacks, and more likely to die earlier than those who express their anger.

Another study published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that angry people were more likely to be creative.

Suppressed anger seems to be more of an issue for women, many of whom have been brought up to believe that rage is unbecoming a lady. A more recent study found that while men are rewarded for outward displays of anger, women are punished. Suppressed anger is linked to all sorts of health conditions. Headaches. Digestive problems. Skin disorders. Freud suggested that depression was "anger turned inwards".

The late Maya Angelou compared bitterness to cancer: "It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns it all clean".

We're beginning to realise that anger is a necessary emotion for healthy mental and physical functioning. It's an energy that can be harnessed to effect change.

The challenge is differentiating between constructive and destructive anger. Constructive anger is controlled and assertive. Destructive anger is aggressive, or worse, passive-aggressive.

Destructive anger is also the kind that coils up inside us like a knot and only rears its head during those sleepless nights when we run over what we really should have said to our ex-boyfriend or ex-boss.

Aristotle, writing in The Art of Rhetoric, said: "Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy".

Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi talked about the healing power of anger in his TED talk 'How to make peace? Get angry'.

"Anger is a power, anger is an energy, and the law of nature is that energy can never be created and never be vanished, can never be destroyed," he says. "So why can't the energy of anger be translated and harnessed to create a better and beautiful world, a more just and equitable world?"

The first step to expressing anger is acknowledging it. Avoid the knee-jerk reaction of 'I'm fine' and notice how freeing it feels to say 'I'm furious'. Sit with it and, if you must temper it, you can always switch to the logical side of your brain by asking yourself 'why am I angry?' (This will at least help you understand that you're often most angry with yourself.)

Anger gives us 'fire in the belly' and, as Satyarthi notes, this can be harnessed positively. Instead of misdirecting the energy and sending off an angry missive to your ex-boyfriend or ex-boss, try to use it as a force to propel you forward. Clean out that closet. Write that letter to the bank. Even going to the gym helps.

There are much more radical exercises for anger catharsis. Primal Scream therapy, which was popular in the 1970s, is still used by some practitioners. Destructotherapy is becoming popular in Spain. Participants smash out-of-commission cars, washing machines and television sets with sledgehammers. Yes, really.

I can't say if these therapies are effective because I have no experience of them. However, I tried Teal Swan's Anger Pages and, again, I was pleasantly surprised. Teal recommends listening to Limp Bizkit. I'm more of a Rage Against the Machine Killing in the Name fan myself. Marlena Shaw's Woman of the Ghetto is one for the ladies while DMX's F*** Y'All is particularly satisfying.

Whatever song, therapy or outlet you choose, just remember that anger has to be released or else it will build up and fester. Like all negative emotions, it's better out than in.

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