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Anger — the problem emotion

by
02 May 2014

Rage is bad for your health. Rebecca Paveley asks how to deal with it

SHUTTERSTOCK

MOST Christians believe that anger is bad for them, physically as well as spiritually, and try not to harbour it. But new research has shown just how bad for the health even an occasional angry outburst can be: the risk of a heart attack or stroke increases up to five-fold for two hours after an episode.

Doctors from the Harvard School of Public Health recently reported that the health risks from an explosion of anger are cumulative, so that regular outbursts of rage are even more likely to trigger a heart attack or stroke.

Studies into the effects and treatment of anger as a mental-health issue have been few and far between, the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) says, as it is frequently classed as "bad" rather than "mad or sad".

The MHF differentiates between normal anger and "problem anger", which it defines as anger that is felt by people "frequently and intensely, and it interferes with their thinking, feeling, behaviour, and relationships, often creating misery for themselves and others".

The majority of us experience episodes of anger that are within a usual and healthy range. But most of us could still learn how to deal with our anger more effectively.

"Anger is a response to a perceived threat," says Jeannie Horsfield, the director of Steppingstones UK, based in Manchester, which specialises in anger management.

"But anger itself is not the problem; the problem for most people is the inappropriate expression of their anger, and the damage this causes in their own lives, and to the people in their lives."

In the MHF report Boiling Point: Anger and what we can do about it, she says: "It can manifest itself in physical, mental, and verbal assaults, relationship break-ups, and bullying, frequent irritability, and social withdrawal."
 

RESEARCH for the MHF suggests that a majority of people believe that anger is getting worse in our society, and that people who struggle to manage their anger should seek help. But GPs say that there are few options for people for who do come to them with self-identified anger issues.

The director of operations for the Association of Christian Counsellors, Ruth Nelson, says that most of their counsellors deal with anger, and it is often interwoven with other issues that may have led the client to seek counselling in the first place.

"Jesus got angry. It's not a sin," says Mike Fisher, a psychotherapist and a Christian counsellor. "It's biological. It's normal. Excessive, unregulated anger is bad for your health, but so is repressing it. Anger is often the compensator for depression. All of us get angry at things in our lives, but hopefully it passes and we make it up."

He counsels people who have suffered serious abuse and trauma, and, for them, the expression of anger represents a beginning to come to terms with their suffering. There is "a clear link between repressed anger and psychosomatic illness and mental-health issues like depression", he says.

Graham Bretherick, a pastor and chartered psychologist in the United States and the author of Healing Life's Hurts: Make anger work for you, says that the emotion of anger serves an important purpose: "Anger was given to us by God to protect us from danger. Fear is the emotional signal that warns us of danger, and anger is the energy needed to deal with the danger, through flight or fight.

"The problem with anger is not the anger itself, but the repressed, the buried anger that accumulates in each of us because of unresolved hurts in our lives." Once buried anger is acknowledged and worked through, current anger issues are much easier to address, he says.

Forgiveness is the key to unlocking anger. "When we forgive - my definition of forgiveness is getting the anger up and out - we are then able to use anger appropriately in situations where it is needed, to defend ourselves or others."
 

PAULINE ANDREW, who is a director of Deep Release counselling service, and carries out pastoral training for church workers, as well as practising privately, agrees. "It is an energy, and you need to express it. [But] we so often try to deny our anger; we say 'Oh, I'm having a bad day,' 'I'm in a bad mood.'"

There is an attitude among some Christians, she says, that, instead of acknowledging anger, and, if appropriate, doing something about it, "there is a belief that we should 'forgive and move on'; that if you 'take it to the Cross' you can leave it there.

"But that approach doesn't help you acknowledge what is making you angry. We've learned early on in life that anger is ugly, and we're afraid to show it."

Mrs Andrew, who has developed a classification system for the way different people show their anger, says that when repressed anger does break out, it can appear in several different ways.

"We classify it as either as being like a volcano erupting; a tornado sweeping all before it; an iceberg freezing everyone out; a sinkhole where the person just implodes; a flood, where tears prevent the problem being addressed; and a desert, where nothing is ever shown. They are all unhealthy. Anger is part of God's nature, and it should be a tool we use, part of our emotional toolkit."

In fact, there are more than 600 references to anger - and associated words - in the Bible. Some are easy to interpret as "righteous anger", such as Jesus's overturning of the tables and cleansing the Temple; but others - such as when he cursed the fig tree - are less easy to understand in that context.

Her clients are given various strategies to help them deal with their anger in a more appropriate way through what she calls "creative interventions". The simplest is to give yourself a physical shake and shake the emotions out of your body - it is a trick that animals do after they have survived a chase or hunt, she says.

It is a three-step process: identifying the anger, releasing it safely, and then expressing it clearly and safely. Once these steps have been worked out then forgiveness can be achieved, she says. "Try and deal with it quickly. Some of the best advice is the old adage 'Do not let the sun go down on your wrath.'"
 

MARY MUNRO, is a member of the ministry team at Ellel Ministries, which runs various courses to help people deal with emotional issues. Part of the process of coming to terms with anger is being able to own it, she says, "recognising it is not a demon but it belongs to me. Underneath anger is often pain; anger can be a mask to hide that pain away."

Owning up to anger, and thereby helping to release it, is a key part of the "Anger. . . How do we handle it?" weekends that Ellel runs. The deputy director of Ellel Grange, Anne Lawrence, says: "We don't teach people to 'manage' their anger as such, but we talk about where their anger could be coming from; also, God's perspective on anger, and, in a safe environment, we allow them to express it to God.

"Anger can be a warning sign that things are going wrong. Our weekend helps people explore where it might be coming from. It may have been pushed away and never been dealt with - perhaps people were told that expressing anger isn't allowed. We let people express their anger in a safe way, in a safespace, and in this way give it to God."

A safe means of expressing anger on the course allows the person to scream, talk, rip up a telephone directory, or paint - all accompanied by someone who will then pray with them.

Responding healthily to anger also involves understanding what is causing the emotion, and working out an appropriate response. "God has given us the emotion of anger," Miss Munro says, "but we need to use it in the right way: to take action against unfairness, or injustice, for example."

Those coming to seek help in understanding their anger span the ages from those in their twenties to their seventies. Many of those who attend courses will have attended, or go on to attend, other healing courses or a healing retreat at Ellel, to work things through on a deeper level.

The Psalms are the perfect example of anger worked through, arriving at thanksgiving and peace at the end, Mrs Lawrence says. The authors pour out their anger and frustration in often violent terms, but, once it is expressed, they find an acceptance, and peace.

www.ellel.org

Healing Life's Hurts by Graham Bretherick is published by Monarch Books at £7.99 (Church Times Bookshop £7.20); Anger: Who's in control? by Pauline Andrew, is available from www.deeprelease.org.uk.

 

Justin Jacobs attended an anger-management course, and has also used prayer to help deal with anger-issues in his life.

JUSTIN JACOBS* attended an anger-management course after the break-up of his marriage, because a court ordered it: his ex-wife pressed charges of common assault against him after he hit her during the break-up of their relationship.

The course was useful, he said, as much for hearing the stories of the 20 other men in the room as for the advice that was given.

He said he had learned to be more self-aware. "I'm aware now of things in my past where I was being abusive with my anger. I'm aware of that now, and try not to be. I've learned to know myself, and to know that when I'm feeling angry about something, it's not a good time to express myself. I need to be calm before I speak."

While anger materialised during the break up of his marriage, he acknowledges that the "constant rubbing shoul­ders with everyone else around", and the "lack of space in society" also raises the amount of tension he feels.

He has since married again, and has been open with his wife about both his break-up and his anger problems. "She feels safe with me, and I've been open about my past.

"It is difficult to forgive [others] when there hasn't been any change or repentance, but you have to forgive yourself, your craziness or moment of madness, and you have to learn not to do it again.

"Its about using your anger for good instead of bad: to do some­thing positive, like writing a letter to your MP and marshalling your anger to ask for change. [But] being depressed also fuels anger, and that's a tough thing to change."

What has made the difference for him is prayer, as much as coun­selling. "If you harbour hatred in your heart, then it doesn't take long to come out in abusive lan­guage or action. Dealing with that is where prayer comes in, and it's about that as much as counselling for me."

* Not his real name

 

Carwen Philips, aged 37, found that in order to deal with anger in her life she had to to explore the reasons behind it.

CARWEN PHILIPS* has struggled with explosive and uncontrollable anger since she was a child - anger that she took out on her­self, and on objects around about her. 

"I thought for a long time I must have some sort of mental illness; that I was a horrible person. As a Christian, I believed that if I gave it to God, the next day would be different. But it wasn't."

The daughter of missionaries, Mrs Philips grew up overseas, and went to a school where punish­ments included standing with your arms out, laden down with Bibles, for hours. "I inter­nalised my anger from then," she says.

When she moved back to the UK, things got worse. As a young teenager, she was groomed to be abused by women. "I thought it was the ultimate sin, to have done that. I didn't dare tell anyone."

The anger grew. "But it was anger that helped me get up in the morning, to get going."

She married, and had children, but there were days when she just went to bed, scared of showing the anger that she felt in front of her children. She often chose not to speak, to stay silent, to keep the anger hidden.

It was a television programme on abuse that led her to phone the police and report her abuse from years earlier. "The police were fantastic. They took it so seriously that it shocked me. They got me into therapy." 

Mrs Philips did not have to go to court, because the person responsible confessed. And she is currently on medication, which is helping her control her emo­tions.

"Dealing with the anger was only scratching the surface - I had to discover the meaning behind it. It was very painful, but our lives are so much better now. I can speak to people openly, and my friends understand me now. 

"Going through therapy made me realise that I grew up with a lot of stress and trauma in my life. But, through various means, God has been showing me that it's OK to enjoy life, and that, in fact, it's important to enjoy my life and my relationship with him, so that I can pass on good stuff to my kids."

colourfulcarwen.blogspot.com

*Not her real name

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