The Anger Thing

I can vividly remember many of my moments of explosive anger over the years. It’s like they are engraved in the tissues of my brain. I cherish two in particular. The first is when I threw my cell phone at my car and it exploded in a glorious comet of plastic and electronics. The second left a divot on my kitchen floor when I threw a plate that shattered with a satisfying booming crash.

If it sounds like I enjoy these memories, you would be correct to a degree. There is guilt and shame associated with them, of course, but there is also the memory of an incredible release of rage and stress. I was instantly calm and my mind was centered on cleaning up the mess that I had made.

Most people don’t associate anger as a symptom of depression or anxiety. There is overwhelming sadness, or fear or a litany of other symptoms, but anger often isn’t even on their list.  It wasn’t even on mine until a few years ago.

In fact, the psychological community has been playing catch up to the fact that anger is a big part of how mental illness presents. On the one hand, excessive anger has long been a primary symptom of depression in men, along with the usual symptoms like the lack of interest in activities they usually enjoy. However, the same is not true for women. A recent study by the University of British Columbia, released just this year, concluded that anger is an often overlooked, but significant,  symptom of postpartum mood disturbances and urged medical professionals to keep on the lookout for maternal anger during the postnatal period.

Many in the psychological community believe that it has taken so long to give anger its proper scrutiny because, in many cultures, anger isn’t an acceptable emotion, especially in women. (Ooh! I could so go off on this topic!) However, the experts are making strides. Not only is there significant research being done, the symptom list for most mental illnesses now includes things like: strong feelings of anger, frequent outbursts of anger or frequent temper tantrums in children…all without a gender classification, I might add. Yay for progress!

How do we know that anger is a symptom of mental illness and not…well…a “normal” part of being human?

Anger is a normal part of being human but, like all things with mental illness, if it gets in the way of normal life operations, it is likely a symptom. Case in point, do you notice anything unusual about the memories of my angry outbursts; beyond the smashing bit, I mean? They are all about what I did, rather than what triggered them. There’s a reason for that. I have no idea why I exploded or what set me off. I can’t remember the source of my rage.

Anger associated with mental illness often doesn’t have a specific trigger. It could be a sensitivity to something someone said or did, or you just woke up angry or…my personal angry outburst of choice…over-reacting to a mild irritation or inconvenience. Curse you, stupid sticking front door lock!!!

But a lot of the anger associated with mental illness stems from simply dealing with the mental illness. There is the anger over the diagnosis, anger over treatment, anger over the frustration with…well…anything, like the process of recovery to the never ending focus on self-care.

There are the ‘why’s’ that we hammer ourselves with: Why am I like this? Why did I do that? Why can’t I beat this? – on and on and on. And, once we have sufficiently beaten ourselves up, we turn our angry thoughts to others: Why don’t they understand? Don’t they see that I need help? Why did they do that! They should know it pisses me off! For some people this internal dialog creates a seething cauldron of consistent anger; for others, like me, it builds up until it explodes in a shatter of electronics and broken plates.

So, really, how are we supposed to deal with this anger thing?

First and foremost: Take care of yourself!

I know. I am building up a bit of frustration right now because that is really the biggest challenge of mental illness, isn’t it; taking care of yourself. Exercise, they say. Eat right, they say. Take part in activities and socialize, they say. Meanwhile, inside you are laughing hysterically or getting angry because all of this feels damn near impossible most of the time.

As much as this advice makes us want to metaphorically chew glass, the rational part of our brain knows the ‘Theys’ are not completely wrong. From my experience, though, you may want to start working on changing the way you think before you start delving into all of those good-for-you activities that send you into a panic.

Here are some of the mindfulness tools I am working with to control, not just my anger, but other elements of my mental illness:

  • Walk away from a situation for a while if you are feeling out of control. I really kind of stink at this when it comes to anger, but when I can do it, it is very helpful to diffuse my brain.
  • Put that overthinking brain of yours to good use. It will mean training that overzealous hamster to start spinning its wheel in another direction, but start recognizing the emotion as it comes and accepting it as a normal, everyday part of life. Yes, anger is normal and, yes, sadness is normal. From there, try to figure out why you feel the way you do. It is surprising how just knowing ‘why’ helps make the feeling manageable. Word to the wise, though; this takes time to become a habit. When you first start, you feel like you are mentally trying to move boulders around in your head.
  • Slo-o-ow Down! My grandma used to have a saying: “She’s going like a fart in a whirlwind!” Don’t try to analyze it too much…it will make your head hurt, but the point is, I will have days where I feel like everything had to be done yesterday. When you are going about your day at ninety miles a minute, it may feel like you don’t have time to think, but your brain is going just as fast as you are. I have had to learn that everything isn’t a priority and that some things can be done at a later time AND I’ve had to work on not beating myself up if I don’t get things done. Trust me, I still wig out, regularly, but slowing down has gotten easier with practice and really helps tone down frustration anger.

For me, starting with mindfulness and working up to the suggestions from the ‘Theys’ was a little more doable; a little less overwhelming. I still get frustrated that exercise is still a dirty word and eating right is a hit or miss proposition, but I can pat myself on the back because I am trying and succeeding more and more often. For instance, my cell phone and plates have been safe for quite a while now…but that stubborn hard-boiled egg that refused to peel? Not so much. You can’t win them all.


What kind of tools do you use to manage your anger?

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While the articles are written to inform, entertain and support those who visit the site, the Anxious Artist is not a licensed medical professional and the information on these pages is not intended to replace regular medical care. Research and testimonials may show promising results with alternative treatments for mental illness, but these should always be discussed with a qualified medical practitioner before being implemented.

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