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Seeing Red

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In this month characterized by love and romance, many might be working through their opposites: anger and stress. And for some, angry emotions such as annoyance, bitterness, or aggression might feel hard to shake.

The root of seeing red

What is anger? Where does it come from? For insight into this complex emotion, I turned to Toronto-based clinical psychologist Dr. Jesmen Mendoza, counsellor at Ryerson University and lead psychologist at Mendoza Psychological Services and Consulting. He explained how “anger is an emotional response that indicates that one has experienced an injustice.”

The range of rage

Feeling angry is a natural, biologically necessary emotion built into the very core of all human beings. Within the range of angry feelings, individuals might experience mild irritation all the way to profound rage. Stress, tension, frustration, hostility, and resentment are also part of the anger spectrum.

The many sides of seeing red

It would be simplistic to characterize anger as a solely negative emotion. Certainly, anger is negative if expressed in ways that cause harm to others or oneself. But anger has many sides. For example, anger can come with a strong surge of energy and feelings of power and personal agency, and in this way might feel empowering for some. What can make anger so unpleasant, however, for the person feeling it and for others in its wake, is how it manifests, particularly when it remains untended—stuck, stagnant, or sharp.

Cultural contexts

While anger is a universally experienced emotion, how it is labelled and expressed varies across the globe. So, there are not only many dimensions of anger, but also culturally rooted layers. Which is to say, there is no single way to regard or deal with anger.

Three cultural variations of coping with anger, for example, include holding it in (preserving dignity), controlling it (upholding honour), or choosing to let anger out directly (saving face). Anger can also “vary because of gender expectations,” reminds Mendoza.

Moving through anger

Given the multifaceted nature of anger, how can we move through it? Mendoza explains that we are able to “resolve anger when we can hold another accountable for the perceived injustice without tying it to expectations.” Coping comes when we express—in safe, brave, and self-compassionate ways—the unfairness, slight, or wrongdoing we feel.

And these expressions of anger must come “without being bound to the other person taking responsibility,” as this lies out of our control and may in fact never happen. As such, Mendoza notes that we each need to uncover and practise ways to “transform our anger into something productive or constructive.”

Avoid avoidance

Avoiding our anger, Mendoza points out, can result in “more anger, a quicker escalation at a later time when that anger is activated, destructive behaviours, and a skewed sense of how the world might actually be.” He offers, “It is best to figure out how to articulate and relinquish one’s anger in an assertive way.”

The impact of staying irate

Anger untended or inappropriately expressed can have significant impacts on our emotional well-being, physical health, and interpersonal relationships. For instance, research shows that anger in the form of outbursts can increase risk of heart attack and stroke, and affect general heart health. Mendoza adds that there is significant “stress and tension associated with carrying anger over time.”

Contributing to a gentler society

At the root of anger, Mendoza highlights, is a broader issue of “citizenship and responsibility-taking. We can’t talk about anger without opening up to learning how to take full responsibility for our lives and our actions.” Not only can “a proper expression of anger actually leave you with energy to thrive,” says Mendoza, but honouring and communicating our anger in healthy ways contributes to a more “responsible way of living and may unlock a kinder and gentler society in the end.”

Rage relief

  • Recognize the injustice.
  • Feel your full feelings.
  • Appreciate your cultural context.
  • Articulate your anger safely and appropriately.
  • Name accountability.
  • Release expectation.
  • Engage in anger-transforming activities.
  • Pay attention to avoidance.
  • Heed physical, emotional, and social impacts.
  • Seek the wisdom and support of allies— family, friends, practitioners.

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