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Perspective: What chronic anger is doing to us

Some forms of anger can be helpful, but others contribute to poor health, depression and anxiety. Here’s how to let go

SHARE Perspective: What chronic anger is doing to us

Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

Be honest: How angry have you been lately? At people around you, certain leaders in the country, or the world as a whole?

And if you’re frustrated right now about something, how long have you felt this way?  

The surrounding media aren’t likely to help you manage these emotions; in fact, media glorifies outrage in headlines like “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.” But what we should be reporting on and talking about more is what all this chronic anger is doing to all of us.

On a basic physiological level, the long-term presence of anger in the body has been explored as another manifestation or form of chronic stress. According to the Mayo Clinic, unrelenting stress can worsen digestive problems, headaches, muscle tension and pain, and contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, sleep problems, weight gain, insomnia and memory impairment.

But that’s not all — the psychic strain of stressful, enduring anger can also aggravate mental health problems including depression and anxiety. The actress Jada Pinkett Smith acknowledged in 2020 that unremitting anger had fueled suicidal thoughts, admitting, “I was sitting on so much rage.”

The influence can work in the other direction, too, with underlying depression giving rise to anger, especially in men.

So what can we do when chronic anger is wearing us down?

Several years ago, after noticing one of my old high school classmates expressing frustration online, I reached out to her. We ended up arranging several Living Room Conversations together where participants have a chance to speak honestly about things that are bothering them. Afterwards, she told me: “I’ve been feeling less depressed since we did this together. Just being heard has really helped me emotionally.” 

Since then, I’ve wondered how many more people could be helped if given the opportunity to unload their emotional burdens in the presence of caring people.

You don’t have to be a therapist to hear someone out. This kind of intent listening and curiosity can be a powerfully counter-cultural act, even a kind of public health intervention in the agitation that surrounds us.

My friend Joan Blades calls this “domestic peace-keeping” — a work that helps assuage the very flames that others seem eager to inflame. There is no better time to do this.

The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on abortion prompted a wave of articles not only justifying, but openly encouraging anger: for example, author Roxane Gay’s essay, “It’s Time to Rage.” It’s also been common during the pandemic to read commentaries proudly trumpeting one’s fury. Across these domains, we see outrage increasingly portrayed as some kind of a positive social good in a way that justifies aggressive ”collective action.” 

Thankfully, as they often have throughout history, most faith leaders have remained calming voices amidst the national ferment.

In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, for instance, a chorus of religious leaders called on our better angels, including Roman Catholic Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Houston, who said, “Pray for what can gather us together and what can unite us.”

Within the last year, President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has called for Christ’s followers “to end conflicts that are raging in your heart, your home, and your life.” While acknowledging that “It can be painfully difficult to let go of anger that feels so justified,” President Nelson asked, “How can we expect peace to exist in the world when we are not individually seeking peace and harmony?”

Of course, there is also healthy and righteous anger that can become a powerful motivation for positive action. Who doesn’t love a movie where the indignant hero fights the bad guys until justice is served and victims rescued? 

But there is something even more powerful than that. I like to show my students the scene near the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird” when Atticus Finch is confronted by local bigot Bob Ewell, who spits in his face. When Finch reaches for something in his pocket, viewers momentarily think he’s positioning for an action-hero punch. But instead, he secures a handkerchief, wipes off his cheek, and walks right past Ewell — not even giving the old cuss another ounce of his energy. 

Now that’s power. And it’s freedom too. The Dalai Lama was once asked why he refused to hate the people who seized his homeland in Tibet. “They’ve taken my home already,” he said. “I won’t let them take my peace too.”

Especially when a situation is outside of our control, an emphasis on our own response to the circumstances can be uniquely empowering. As Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl once wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Okay, so what if anger feels difficult or even impossible to step away from? A group called Rageaholics Anonymous teaches a pathway out of consuming anger by asking participants to first admit they’re stuck. Then they are invited to “come to believe that a power greater than yourself” can restore you to peace.  After that, you can “make a decision to turn your will and life over to the care of God.”  

Sometimes this kind of a heart-level shift is necessary for emotional or behavioral patterns to dissipate. What else can help us clear anger from our lives? Here are five practical suggestions anyone can implement, including parents trying to help children struggling with anger.

Pay closer attention to what’s entering both body and mind. As simplistic as it sounds, Mom’s old advice about eating and sleeping well can help navigate the ups and downs of intense frustration. Bring the same careful attention to turning off enraging or fear-mongering media. And don’t forget how much encouraging, uplifting media can calm and ground us, too.  

Take advantage of nonangry moments. If it’s only when anger spikes that we’re doing something about it, we’re missing out on potential growth. We can use the time between moments of strong frustration to learn how to handle rage more skillfully next time. For instance, with some training, it’s possible to learn to let ourselves feel something, without following it. As therapist Marsha Linehan puts it, “Feel it fully, then do the opposite.”   

Explore emotions underneath the anger. Anxiety, loneliness or sorrow are often bubbling up right underneath anger, and we can realize this if we’re paying attention. If we ignore these emotional roots, we’re missing valuable signs of what’s really going on and what we really need.  

Channel anger in healthy directions. When anger is justified, consider ways to right an injustice or wrong — or at least raise your voice to advocate a solution.  Finding a wholesome way to use the frustration can be invigorating.

Get really good at extending grace and forgiveness. Psychologist Everett Worthington has spent his career exploring the scientific benefits of forgiveness. Whatever your faith background, this research confirms many tangible benefits of extending grace to other imperfect human beings, including enhanced mood and well-being, and measurably expanded connection, empathy and love.

With so many people around us who are filled with anger, the good news is we don’t have to be one of them. Do whatever it takes to free yourself from the grip of anger and join the ranks of the peacemakers. Not only is it the calmer path, it’s the healthier and happier one, and so much more enjoyable than walking around with a scowl.

Jacob Hess is the editor-in-chief at Public Square Magazine and served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, Hess also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”