Have you ever woke from a dream angry? Even though the events that angered you were imaginary, it can take a while to shake this irrational feeling. Anger hijacks your nervous system. And once it takes over, it tries to keep feeding itself. It’s as if anger gets stored in your body, demanding that you keep generating negative thoughts and feelings until you’ve utterly exhausted yourself.
Replaying and Venting
Anger tends to reinforce itself in a couple of ways. We easily confuse feelings of anger with the “right to be angry.” But as the angry waking example shows, feelings of anger do not necessarily prove that you were truly wronged. When you replay an infuriating event over and over in your mind, doubling down on your own perspective, you are drinking your own Kool-aid. You are passively reinforcing the idea of you as a victim rather than taking some positive action.
People also tend to reinforce their anger by “venting.” Although the idea is that you blow off steam when you vent, the opposite is often true. Studies show that when you relate an anger-making incident in an emotional way, your body releases cortisol, a stress hormone. So to vent is to relive the event, revving up your body for fight or flight. And you typically vent to someone who will back up your perception of events, thereby gathering even more fuel for feeling wronged.
Anger as Energy
Anger is just energy. Maybe you were genuinely wronged, or maybe your nervous is just revved up by imagined events. Either way, anger is a dynamic energy trapped in your body. It has to go somewhere. Rather than using this energy to reinforce itself, you can spend it, let go of it. You do this by deliberately redirecting it in a productive direction. Exercise, journal, paint. Walk your dog, clean out your garage, sing in the shower. I’m not suggesting you avoid or repress the anger. You recognize it, you notice what anger feels like in your body and mind. And when you are convinced you would like less of this energy, you mindfully and strategically point it in a useful direction.