How Understanding Anger Revolutionizes Addiction Recovery
“Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry.”
Consider how different our world would be if we took these words of 19th century American theologian and author Lyman Abbott to heart. What if we stopped demonizing our anger and started listening to the important messages it has to convey? What if we taught our children – and ourselves – how to be angry in a healthy way?
If we did that, the still-soaring rates of mental illness, drug abuse, and overdose deaths in the US would decrease.
In this post, we’ll explore the connection between anger and addiction and why people suffering from addiction tend to have a lot of pushed-down anger, and how that stored-up emotion is sabotaging their mental health and happiness. By addressing the root causes of the anger, we can open the door to healing from both mental health conditions and addictions.
What is Anger and Why is It Necessary?
Anger is a feeling we experience in our bodies in response to our thoughts. It’s one of the four major categories of human emotion, which are mad, sad, glad, and scared.
If you Google “anger,” you’ll get this definition: “a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility.” That’s a good start, but we also want to go deeper, to look at the root cause of that feeling. Why do we feel angry in the first place?
Dr. Martha Beck answers this question in her book Finding Your Own North Star. To paraphrase, Beck says that anger indicates one of two things: (1) either something your essential self needs is absent; or (2) something that your essential self can’t tolerate is present.
In other words, anger is your body’s way of telling you to address a problem. Either you need to draw closer to something positive, or you need to move farther away from something painful.
Anger exists to clarify your boundaries, keep you safe, and challenge you to take action and effect positive change. Those are all proper functions of anger. But what happens when we misuse or ignore our anger?
Negative Impact of Stored Anger and Frequent Anger
When we deny our anger, it doesn’t disappear. On the contrary, it creates havoc with everything from our immune systems to our emotional health. Why? Because it takes a lot of physical, mental, and emotional energy to keep anger below the surface of consciousness. Repressing anger is like trying to push an inflated beach ball under water: it takes a ton of work!
Our emotions have a natural buoyancy; they want to be seen and acknowledged before they float away. Refusing to feel rising emotions is exhausting! Plus, modern scientific research demonstrates that frequent episodes of anger tax our immune systems.
According to research published in the Journal of Advancement in Medicine, compassion and anger have physiological and psychological effects. S-IgA (an important antibody class) spikes immediately after a five minute period of anger and then decreases dramatically … for five hours after the initial experience of anger!
The researchers in this study also note that “surprisingly, minor mood fluctuations are more strongly correlated with disease than major stressors.” Translation: our day-to-day experiences of anger impact our physical health. Furthermore, unresolved anger can precipitate mental health conditions and substance abuse, as well.
Anger, Addiction, and Mental Health Conditions
Here’s the key to understanding anger and addiction: beneath all of our anger lies hurt. Why do we get angry? Because a part of us is hurting; a part of us is in pain. As author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle put it: “Where there is anger, there is always pain underneath.”
If we don’t address that underlying pain effectively, then it will reveal itself in dysfunctional, self-destructive behavior. When we don’t allow ourselves to feel and heed our own anger, we’re at a much higher risk for mental health conditions such as depression.
Depression: Anger Turned Inward
We like to define depression as “anger turned inward.” When we turn our anger inward against ourselves, it manifests as numbness, apathy, and emotional deadening. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Depression happens when our emotional system shuts down and numbs out in an attempt to avoid being hurt even more! Depression is the result of our psyche’s attempt to manage painful, stored-up anger. The problem is that depression itself is dangerous. People who struggle with depression are also at a greater risk for drug addiction, self-harm, and suicide. In fact, depression and addiction are common companions of dual diagnosis.
Anger and Addiction Recovery
The important thing to remember about long-term addiction recovery is that it necessitates accessing, expressing, and owning your anger. Why? Because when you don’t do that – when you push anger down deep inside – it leads to more and more mental and emotional pain. And a high level of mental and emotional pain is a prime set up for drug addiction. After all, people don’t get addicted to drugs when everything is “just fine.” People get addicted to drugs when the pain of their thoughts and feelings becomes unbearable, when they need a way out of their internal world.
As British journalist and addiction writer Johann Hari noted in his TED talk Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong: “A core part of addiction … is about not being able to bear to be present in your life.”
People who are struggling with drug addictions cannot bear to be present to their own pain. However, we all have the power to heal our underlying hurts and make our internal and external worlds better.
How Anger Helps You
Here’s the important thing to remember about your anger: it’s always on your side. Granted, it may not seem that way. It may seem as though your anger is out to get you … but that’s because it’s been caged up and held down for too long.
As coach Anna Kunnecke wrote in her powerful post on anger:
“… Imagine taking any healthy loving human being and locking them up in a cage for 20 or 50 years. Think how contorted she would get. How desperate. How filthy and furious and twisted. This is what happens when [you] lock away [your] anger.”
Do you see how wacky this is? We’re scared to feel anger, so we lock it away … but the anger gets much scarier once it’s trapped and caged! The good news is, we can integrate the aspects of ourselves that are angry. Instead of shoving them into an internal prison, we can set them free, offer them nourishment, and welcome them into the rest of our lives. If anger is good, is there also a positive aspect from addiction? Yes, there can be, if you frame it correctly.
If you want to learn about your addict aspect and uncover its positive purpose in your life, you can do so by going straight to the source. You can do a dialogue with your anger, taking time to listen to what it has to say. You can respond to this wounded part of yourself with compassion. Give it a try, and you’ll be surprised by how readily it comes to your aid.
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