When Mary saw a suspicious text message on her husband’s cell phone, she suspected he was having an affair and later that evening she confronted him. He reluctantly admitted he was having sex with a woman he met at work but told her he was going to break the affair off immediately. Mary became livid and asked her husband to leave the house but when he started crying, apologizing and telling her that she was the love of his life, she decided to let him stay. Yet that evening and the following days, anger built up inside of her. She didn’t express it, keeping it bottled in, continuing to smile at her work and trying to be nice to her husband at night. The following days, things continued to simmer inside of her. Stress built up. Part of Mary wanted to express her anger at her husband while another part of her wanted her to remain well-behaved, and to exhibit the socially acceptable behavior her parents had always taught her to have. Two weeks later, she got sick. An acute pharyngitis (sore throat) developed, coupled with depression and fatigue.
Mary was not unique in getting sick after bottling up strong emotions.
Everybody has experienced anger in the past. The question is: What do we do with this feeling? Do we act on it? Do we keep it bottled in inside of us? If we act on our anger, we could hurt other people. If we keep our anger bottled in, studies show that adrenaline and cortisol which are our stress hormones will be secreted, making us more prone to infections and cardiovascular disease. Thus, instead of hurting other people, we will hurt ourselves.
The best way to deal with anger is to express it in a healthy way and turn this negative and possibly destructive feeling into a positive, constructive action.
Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman at UCLA showed that when we put negative feelings into words, activity of our amygdala (the part of your brain associated emotion response and decision-making) decreases, process that may ultimately contribute to better mental and physical health. What’s more, the Harvard School of Public Health has evidence that shows that people who openly express their feelings are healthier than those who habitually suppress strong emotions.
How can we safely express anger without hurting ourselves or other people?
Here are 7 healthy, constructive and positive ways — some of them quite fun and beautiful — to express anger:
1. Hit a ball. Learn how to play tennis, golf, table tennis, volleyball etc… Get boxing gloves and hit a punching bag imagining you are beating up the person that triggered your anger. You can also go to the gym and pump iron or simply go for a run or a swim.
2, Write out your anger. Get a paper and a pen and write the details of how you feel.
3. Sing out your anger. Listen to music that carries anger with it like "Before he cheats" by Carrie Underwood. You can also create scores and lyrics that exactly match what you feel. Even if you dont know music, what you will create can be quite beautiful. Use your voice or any musical instrument you are drawn to.
4. Dance out your anger: on a staccato rhythm, in the privacy of your home, dance your anger out.
5. Draw or paint your anger. Take a piece of paper and colorful crayons and draw or paint whatever comes to mind. Some of those paintings can be quite gorgeous.
6. Verbalize your anger using a gestalt technique of putting a chair across from the chair you are sitting upon. Imagine that the person you are angry with is sitting on that chair and tell that chair everything that you are bottling up inside. Talk to that chair and scream at that chair. Another way to safely express anger is to put a few plump pillows on your sofa, wait until you are home alone, then hit those pillows, screaming at them pretending they are the person you are angry at. Within minutes your bottled-up rage will vent, and you will become more relaxed and objective.
7. Then you can calmly talk. After using one or more of those techniques, when you feel less emotional, talk directly to the person you are angry with, calmly explain why you are angry, gently explore the different ways to fix the problem and suggest a way to prevent a similar event from happening again.
Use those techniques as needed for a healthy, happier life.
To learn more, read my book, The Listening Cure or listen to its audiotape full of riveting stories.