Healthy anger as an additional preventative measure for coronavirus?
Updated: Apr 12, 2020
Disclaimer: This post is not to be misconstrued as medical advice. Rather, its purpose is to describe how healthy anger, in conjunction with following CDC guidelines and common-sense health practices, can help support your immune system in scary times.
“I don’t want to be angry”
I can’t even count the number of times I have heard the phrase “I don’t want to be angry” from clients and friends alike. It’s a phrase I still catch myself using from time to time. It makes perfect sense that anger has gotten such a bad rap in our society and why people are so disenchanted with it. The most common outward expressions of anger are experienced as scary, overwhelming, and out of control at best. When we think of anger, images of punching walls, smoke coming out of ears, and yelling obscenities abound. But what if the culprit isn’t anger itself, but rather the way we have been taught to deal with it? And what if anger can help us to heal and protect our bodies from illness, both acute and chronic? And, most importantly, is anyone else feeling angry about this virus?
Many people equate being angry with negative health outcomes. And it’s true that there is good data showing the risk of having a heart attack doubles in the hours following an episode of rage. However, there is also good data showing that repressing/suppressing/ignoring/distracting ourselves from/controlling and avoiding anger hurts our health in the long run.
Emotions and our immune system
In this talk, Gabor Maté, MD explains that our immune system is not separate from our emotional system. When our emotions are not allowed to be felt and expressed (in a healthy way), our immune function suffers. “When things happen emotionally, they have an impact on the immune system,” says Maté.
This whole talk is worth listening to, but if you only have a few minutes, start at minute 17 and listen until minute 24. He explains that the immune system, hormonal system, gut system, cardiovascular system, nervous system and emotional system are all the same system, even though they may function in different ways. And here’s the reason why avoiding anger makes you more prone to illness: “Healthy anger and the immune system both have the same function, which is to protect you.” He goes on to explain that the immune system has natural killer cells, and that suppressing anger and other emotions suppresses these cells. I would add, from a nervous system perspective, that anytime we override a natural survival activity (such as anger, sleeping, eating, using the bathroom), our body goes into stress response (think fight/flight/freeze). When we are in stress response, our physiological markers completely change. Our blood pressure, body temperature, blood flow, digestion, brain function, and much more changes and gets dysregulated. This in turn disables our immune system. Why would our body care about repairing itself if it thinks we are under immediate threat?
Maté then explains the difference between healthy and unhealthy anger. Just like repressing your anger, having what he refers to as “unhealthy anger” also increases your risk for illness. He states that healthy anger happens in the present and acts as “boundary defense.” Unhealthy anger has to do with “recruiting negative memories from the past and projecting them into the future.” I think many people are innocently practicing “unhealthy anger”, though most would never identify their anger as being “recruited” from the past; they believe that their anger is one hundred percent caused by the present situation. And it makes sense, because this is exactly how we experience it. The practice of unhealthy anger is the reason why I think we are such an anger-adverse society. Digging deeper and finding the root cause of the anger takes awareness, time, and some detective work.
What am I really angry about?
An example, if I might. There’s been a lot of changes happening at the agency I work at outside of my private practice and I’ve been feeling angry about it. It dawned on me just the other day (mind you I’ve been angry on and off about this for almost the last three months!) that though my anger at the present situation is valid, the true crux of it is about unhealed hurts from my past. I realized I’m re-experiencing anger from my past that I never fully felt or expressed. I’m feeling the anger of being bullied in 5th grade and none of the adults around me doing a damn thing about it. I’m feeling the anger of past romantic partners abandoning me. I’m feeling the anger of all the vicarious trauma from over ten years of working in the human services system.
Notice my last three sentences; can you feel the anger? I certainly can! The truth is that I’m sure my 5th grade teacher did try to do something. And I know that my past romantic partners did the best they could (I was no gem either!). And human services—it’s just an imperfect system made up of imperfect people, including me. But my body tells a different story. My body and nervous system still hold survival energy in the form of anger (and grief, rage, sadness and a lot more). When I go to work and have interactions that remind my body of stressful experiences from the past (this is called implicit memory—the subject for another blog post), my system responds with the same energy as if I were still in 5th grade. And this is what I believe Dr. Maté means by “unhealthy anger.”
In this case, my sense is that healthy anger would look like noticing the anger I feel in the moment, allowing it to be there, and feeling it peak and then subside. Then moving on to the next thing. If emotions are allowed to be experienced uninterrupted, they last about 90 seconds. But that’s not what I’ve been doing. I’ve been feeling very anxious and emotionally shut down in my interactions at work, then later feeling extremely enraged. Or I’ve felt angry in the moment, but I’ve shut it down completely in order to be a “good employee.” Instead of just feeling it and being with it, I’ve been complaining to my partner, calling my coworkers to vent, and having imaginary conversations in my head. All of these things are making me more angry and aren’t doing anything to allow the anger to move through. It’s just getting more and more stuck inside of me.
So, let’s bring it back around. How can healthy anger help to protect you from the coronavirus? By allowing your immune system to fire on all cylinders. Does this mean that you should walk around just looking for things to be angry about? Not at all—that would be considered “unhealthy anger”. And does it mean that you shouldn’t wash your hands or eat your veggies or stay home if you feel sick? No! But it seems to me that there are a lot of feelings about this virus, one of them being anger. People are cancelling travel plans, feeling suspicious about the health of others, and facing possible loss of income and social isolation. That sounds like a petri dish for anger if you ask me!
Stay tuned for my next post on how to identify healthy vs. unhealthy anger, and what to do about it.