This may explain why some women tend to view anger as counter-productive, tend to hold grudges and resentment longer than men, and tend to keep anger quelled until a point of detonation. And, while there’s nothing in the DSM about anger suppression being an illness, it can have grave effects. In addition to eruptive behavior, anger suppression manifests itself in myriad physical illnesses, from irritable bowel syndrome to lowered libido to eating disorders.
“Most people have this idea that anger is not productive or it’s a waste of energy when really, it can be really useful,” says leading anger researcher and therapist Deborah Cox, who co-wrote The Anger Advantage: The Surprising Benefits of Anger and How it Can Change a Woman’s Life. “We’re not taught really well how to process it. So, the alternative to this pure feeling — this alarm that says we need to change something — is to minimize our emotion.” One way that happens, she explains, involves eating. “Women’s anger that gets suppressed can turn into the tendency to overeat, eat the wrong things, or to be fearful of food. Internalizing anger does a funny number on our appetites and our ability to relate to people. It gets warped when we don’t speak it or process it.”
Krystal Kuehn, a Michigan-based psychotherapist, adds, “Not only can suppression of anger be harmful to one’s physical health, it can also be harmful to relationships, because communication is compromised.”
So, then: How do we keep this raw, natural emotion from consuming us?
Cox calls on three way to unroot your anger and give it an escape route in a way that sparks creativity and growth:
1. Get Conscious. Maybe you haven’t hit the sheets with your main squeeze in the past few months because you’re just. too. busy. Or…maybe you’re pissed. Cox says, “We can feel anger on an unconscious level, and leave it there for years on end. It can come out as panic attacks, fogginess, problem eating, or it can it clamp that libido right down.” Yikes. To become aware of any underlying anger we may have, Cox suggests writing feelings down in a journal, talking in front of a mirror when you’re alone (to see and hear yourself voicing frustrations), or talking about your feelings to a trusted listener. Once you unearth whatever’s chipping away at you, your emotions can be expressed in constructive, not destructive, ways.
2. Take Care Of Number One. It makes sense that we may need extra TLC after digging through the more irritating of our feelings and becoming aware of our anger. The staples of a healthy lifestyle — sleep, exercise and nutritional eating — become even more vital when we’re in this emotional state, Cox says, since headaches and stomachaches are more likely to occur during this time.
She suggests walking as a constructive way to get your blood and brainwaves flowing. “Something about the back-and-forth, left-and-right, simulation helps us process information,” she says. “A lot of people say they go on a long walk to think about something difficult, and often they resolve the issue while they’re walking.”
3. Find A Confidant: This asset isn’t as easy to come by as journaling or taking a walk, but Cox stresses the importance of finding a trusted listener as a way of processing your anger. “This needs to be someone who loves us regardless of how angry we are or what were angry about,” she says. “Somebody who is not going to say, ‘This is ridiculous.’” Even if your trusted listener happens to be the one you’re most furious with, like your husband, mother or best friend, talking to someone who will treat you with empathy and respect while you voice your concerns is a vital component of anger expression.
Of course, blowing up at the person who loves you most, when you really need to confront a co-worker is no way to roll. But, after you’ve discovered, acknowledged and processed your angry in a reflective way, it’s time to take your feelings to the source and directly confront whomever angers you in a mindful way — that is, one that involves no obscenities nor tears.
Cox suggests taking stock in the who, what, where, when and why of what’s bothering you, so you can articulate the problem clearly. Before addressing the person, find a calm time — not right when your roommate gets home or during crunch time for a work project. Then, when you’re ready to work your nerves, pay careful attention to the language you use. Cox recommends developing language that shows ownership, such as, “I’m outraged because…” or “I feel angry when….”
Kuehn agrees. “Using ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’ statements helps the other person let their guard down and keeps them from becoming defensive,” she explains. “It helps remove barriers between parties because blame isn’t an issue. Instead, it’s an expression of the underlying pain that is causing the anger.”
After breaking down how you feel and why, articulate what you would like instead of the treatment you received. (For instance, if you’re steamed about not being heard by your partner, try stating, “I really feel belittled when you cut me off. What I would appreciate instead is for you to acknowledge and consider my input before giving me your perspective.”) Cox also suggests keeping a thesaurus of words in your arsenal, such as “annoyed” or “irritated,” so you can tell people how you feel in a tone that’s most appropriate for any given situation.
Finally, don’t expect people to shower you with rainbows and champagne for sharing your negative feelings, even when you do so in a decisive, constructive way. Cox reminds us that as a culture, most of us don’t have training in how to deal with conflict — even the healthy kind. She adds that it’s okay to get a bad reaction, and at that point, it’s no longer about you.
While it can feel like a failure to put such thought and energy into a lackluster resolve, consider this. Even if the other person doesn’t thank you for expressing your anger in a healthy way, your body — from your bowels to your belly to your brain — most certainly will.
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