Do you know someone who always seems to be angry? Maybe it’s even you? Did you know that the way you cope with your feelings of anger is an important factor that can predict your long-term health? Suppressed anger is associated with higher death rates, higher risk for some cancers, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Those are some good reasons to learn how to deal with anger appropriately.
Yes, there is an appropriate way to express anger, despite what you may have been taught. Anger is a natural – even useful – emotion but few women are taught how to express their anger in a positive manner. As young girls, we were told that anger should be avoided. As adult women, we struggle to untangle our anger from other emotions, such as anxiety and depression. The younger generation of women might be a little better off, having been reared with more liberal teachings, and yet most of us find ourselves feeling unsettled with our anger, which often simmers and then explodes at random times.
Anger is powerful. With the best use of anger, we can clarify our objectives and anger can guide us to safety. However, in the worst use, it takes a toll on our health, happiness, and affects our loved ones in negative ways. We need to be aware of its health benefits, understand its primal roots, and learn how to control anger in order to really flourish.
Anger Inspires Fight, Not Flight
When we sense danger, we have an intuitive “fight or flight” response. Fear makes us want to run (the “flight” component) and anger gets us ready to fight. These emotions, and their instinctual responses, are primal in nature and help guarantee our survival. There are two almond-shaped structures (amygdala) in our brains responsible for recognizing danger and sounding the alarm to your system. When danger is near, your central nervous system releases its physiological floodgates. This can often happen before the thinking part of your brain (prefrontal cortex) is even aware of the danger.
When you become angry, there are neurotransmitters (catecholamines) in your brain that release and cause a bolt of energy for about five to ten minutes. Your heart beats faster; your blood pressure rises, and your arms and legs get extra blood flow. You get a rush of adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol and enter an altered state of consciousness, ready to “fight.” You might even stop thinking (rationalizing). That is why you might not recall what you said or did when you were extremely angry.
This anger system is the same for everyone, but everyone has a different ability to control the instinct. Controlling your anger depends on a variety of factors, which include physiological, biographical, emotional, learned, and gender-related behavior.
Women and Anger
As mentioned previously, it’s not nice for women to be seen as angry. However, society seems to accept that men tend to be more aggressive as a protective instinct. Often, a man who explodes with anger is ignored or even understood, but when women voice their anger, they are met with disapproval or criticism.
Biologically, the “male” hormone testosterone (at both high and low levels) has been linked to aggression and irritability in men. Women who have a testosterone imbalance might have the same tendency to lash out, but have learned to express it differently. And there’s no clear answer as to whether angry people generate more testosterone as a result of the emotion, or if an imbalance in testosterone causes the angry response. It’s sort of like the old “chicken and egg” question.
What is obvious is that men and women often have very different reactions when angry. Men are more likely to react externally, directing their anger at another person or object, whereas women will express anger toward others indirectly or at themselves (internal). Younger women have learned to better express their anger, but still that anger is often misdirected toward a “safe” target (such as a spouse or child) instead of the primary source. There is still work to do in helping everyone, no matter what age, learn to appropriately deal with angry feelings. In my experience, guilty feelings in women are often traced to misdirected anger. Studies on gender and anger indicate that women usually feel shame, guilt, and resentment after an angry outburst.
Handling Anger Appropriately: What’s the Gain?
Here’s a thought for you to consider. The health risks that apply to men (heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and social isolation) also affect women when they are more hostile, competitive, impatient, and aggressive. What will your anger cost you in your personal life, your family life, and your career?
Alternatively, stifling angry feelings is not appropriate and doesn’t make those feelings go away. In fact, the same physiological response occurs, with exactly the same risks, whether or not you actively get angry with someone. If you try to hide your anger, then it will probably come out in another form, such as anxiety, depression, irritability, resentment, chronic pain, and addictive or self-destructive behavior.
How can you know when anger is healthy and positive? The answer is in understanding what activates your anger. If you can identify what it is that makes you angry and what you can do to control your anger appropriately, then it can be expressed at the right time and place, in an appropriate way. Your anger will be constructive and will not be wasted on shame, guilt, and resentment.
Common Roots of Anger in Women
Anger is a primitive emotion that may have even been influenced by our experience in utero, and the triggers are a learned behavior. If you were brought up by an angry parent or if you were exposed to an explosive (for example, alcoholic) household, there is a good possibility that your brain has learned what “angry” mode is. Newer research is bearing this out.
If one or both of your parents was passive-aggressive, controlling, or suppressed anger, then that is part of your internal emotional experience as well. If you experienced or witnessed physical or emotional abuse, this can create suppressed anger that may surface years later. A child models the behavior of his or her parents and usually passes the behavior on, unless there is a conscious decision to change that vicious cycle.
“Good Girl” Syndrome
You’ve probably also heard of the “good girl syndrome.” You might have been the peacekeeper between your parents—one who was explosive and one who was submissive, and you tried to be the good girl to make things better between them. Even today, women hear comments such as “Let’s not be too bitchy” or “Is it PMS?”
One often overlooked cause of anger is your diet and what you put into your body. Have you ever heard the term “hangry”? This is when your body lacks proper nutrition throughout the day and you feel edgy or constantly on the verge of snapping at someone. To help deter this response, I suggest that you eat three balanced meals and two snacks daily to help keep your moods stable. If you’ve skipped a meal and then overreacted to someone or something, then you know that hunger affects your anger response. While you are usually more irritated than angry, it can be the start of your anger cascade process. Eating regular, healthy meals throughout the day will help prevent emotional reactions that are really a response to your need for nourishment.
Choosing the Wrong Kind of Nourishment
Keep in mind that it’s not only when you eat, but it’s also what you eat that matters. Studies show that a standard, high-fat, high-sugar U.S. diet makes everyone irritable! According to research, families who chose to eat a diet that was low in damaged saturated fats (the kinds of fats found in fast foods and over-processed, packaged foods) had less depression, less hostility, and lower cholesterol levels.
Balanced meals should include lean proteins, healthy fats, and lots of fresh, non-starchy vegetables. A balanced meal is more likely to have a low glycemic load, and this lets your body – and your temper – remain on a more even keel. You can maintain steady levels of insulin and serotonin by eating foods that are low on the glycemic index, which support a calmer mood. Even adults are more likely to have temper tantrums if they continually overdose on high-glycemic foods (such as simple sugars), especially if they are under a lot of stress. Also remember the more color on your plate the more likely that you have a plate filled with antioxidants and fabulous nutrients.
Here’s another thought – excessive, unhealthy fats, refined sugars, and toxins put added stress on your liver. In order to digest these foods properly, your liver has to create more bile. The word “bilious” means peevish and irritable! So your overworked liver will directly affect your mood. In traditional Chinese medicine, the liver creates a relaxed and harmonious internal environment through the smooth disbursement of bodily fluids. The concept of “flying off the handle” is attributed to disharmony in the liver, and a sudden emotional shift can affect liver function.
If you have a low serotonin level, this could be another cause of anger traced to poor nutrition. I consider depression to be anger that is turned inward. If you take antidepressants for depression symptoms, this might boost your serotonin levels and your mood temporarily, but it won’t be a long-term solution if your anger is undiagnosed. If you have symptoms of depression, it will benefit you to examine your relationship to anger, how well you are able express anger (if at all), and how things might change if you can explore your feelings.
Depression and anger are influenced by an imbalance of hormones. This is a primary reason why women who are perimenopausal or menopausal, might experience both depression and anger during this time of change.
Are Hormones and Anger Connected?
Mood swings and irritability are two symptoms of fluctuations in hormone levels and occur during pregnancy, PMS, perimenopause and/or menopause. In your body, the emotion of anger creates pro-inflammatory molecules. Estrogen has some anti-inflammatory qualities, and progesterone has a calming effect. This explains why women might find themselves angrier when their progesterone-to-estrogen ratios become erratic during perimenopause. Some women experience cortisol dominance or testosterone imbalance and this contributes to anxiety and hostility.
When I talk with my patients, they express surprise at their first experience with anger during perimenopause and menopause. Changing hormones are a challenge to the flexible endocrine system. It’s similar to the few days before our menstrual periods started (when our hormones let our “true” feelings come out). Menopause is also a time when the true feelings of anger come out.
I suggest that you see your anger as a source of power. It is the emotion that helps you “fight” for what is yours. This is a great time to stand up for yourself and what you believe in. Let’s review ways to channel that anger that serves you and your best purpose.
How to Control Anger – Here’s My Approach
I don’t know anyone who wants to associate with an angry, irritable person. People who are always angry are usually avoided or tuned out. If you want to express your anger in a positive way, then you need to teach your brain to think before you act, especially if you are someone who acts impulsively or is extremely angry. Or you might want to be able to tell someone close to you when you are becoming angry to help you shift and find ways to channel that energy for positive results.
Before you can do that, however, you need to be sure that there is nothing physical that may be contributing to or causing your anger. Once that’s ruled out, you are then better able to explore ways to release your anger and move forward. It is very rare, but pressure from a brain tumor can provoke aggressive behavior. If you’ve tried taking action and it doesn’t help, please check with your doctor. Here are some considerations for you to optimize your healthy lifestyle.
Support Your Hormonal Balance and Serotonin Levels with Optimal Nutrition
Take a daily pharmaceutical grade multivitamin/mineral complex that is rich in calcium, magnesium, and a quality omega-3 fatty acid supplement. Try not to eat damaged fats, processed foods, and simple sugars. Be sure to eat healthy fats, such as extra-virgin olive oil and foods that are rich in omega-3’s. If you think that your anger is related to PMS or perimenopause, then progesterone might restore a healthy ratio among estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.
Support Your Liver Function
It’s great to eat a healthy diet, but you might consider supporting your liver function by trying a detoxification program. If you’re angry, don’t drink alcohol, as it will make you feel more irritable, angry, and depressed. Try liver-cleansing supplements or herbs, such as milk thistle and dandelion. These can help heal and maintain the health of your liver.
Support Your Nervous System
Cut back or discontinue caffeine and nicotine. These are very hard on your nervous system. Be sure to take supplements that include adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA and EPA. These help insulate and protect your nerve cells.
Use a Diary to Track Your Patterns of Anger
It can be helpful to notice if you become irritable at specific times of the month, after eating certain foods, or under special circumstances. If you can learn to know in advance when these triggers set off the stress in your body, you can retrain your reaction, and allow the “thinking” part of your brain to take control. Counting to ten really does work! It will take some practice, but continue to work on your response to your anger and it will make a difference in your life.
Find Ways to Cope in the Moment
In addition to counting to ten, try taking deep breaths, meditation, visualization, or remove yourself from the source of anger. After the feelings of anger are over, take time to clear your head and explore your emotions. Find a better way to release the anger from your body.
Consider Releasing Anger Through Physical Activity
Another way to feel better emotionally is to engage in a good workout. This might mean that you turn up the music (if you’re alone) and scream out your anger. Or you can pound a pillow with a plastic bat, use a punching bag, or work in the garden to help clear your head and eliminate any anger you might be feeling. Find a way to express your anger in a safe, physical way to get it out of your body.
Consider Releasing Anger Through Creativity
Sometimes a creative activity that appeals to you can help heal your anger. Let your true self show in your creation. It can be preparing a meal, painting, doing a craft project, singing, or dancing. It can truly be anything creative that allows you to express yourself and release your anger in a positive manner.
Give Anger a Voice
Once you get over the initial feeling of anger and you’re calm, speak your truth and share your feelings. Don’t direct the anger at someone, but discuss why you are hurting and how you feel. If you don’t want to talk about it, write it in a letter or journal. Some people find burning what they have written can help decrease their anger. By writing it down, you can revisit the anger patterns and see triggers and reactions. You’ll then be able to act in a rational and powerful way that won’t leave you feeling guilty. You can decide to channel your emotions to create change and make things better in your home, your community, and the world.
Don’t Be Scared to Ask for Support
As you are aware, anger is a complex emotion, and it might have been building inside you for many years. If you need help to explore your feelings or identify your anger patterns, consider emotional freedom techniques, like the Quadrinity Process, or talk to a therapist. The key is to know your real feelings and where they come from, and then you can develop coping tools.
Put Anger in its Place
Angry women can be the source of change for the better. It’s the feeling of anger and the response to that feeling that helps to fight injustice and intolerance. However, if the anger is misplaced or constant then there is no power to effect change and it can damage your health greatly. So consider exploring for yourself how to begin to take simple steps to put your anger in a place that helps you as opposed to getting in your way, which it can do when you are not able to understand where it is coming from. Take some of these suggestions to heart and know when you do that your life can take a turn for the better.