‘I Worried That Once I Allowed Myself To Feel Angry, I Wouldn’t Be Able To Take It Back’

Long-term denial of anger can have a surprising number of health consequences. After years of playing it nice, I needed to learn how to get mad.

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Woman boxes away her suppressed anger in moody lighting

Photo, iStock/Arbobogg Imagery

My anger used to feel like a snuffed match. Two years ago, I had many reasons to be mad, including a history of sexual trauma, a short, bad marriage and a subsequent divorce. Still, my reflex was usually to smile, not yell. I used to think of my learned ability to placate others and to project kindness as a useful skill. What woman didn’t want to be liked? To be praised as the nicest in the room? I avoided my rage with the deft skill and obsessive dedication usually reserved for evading an ex-lover.

I worried that once I allowed myself to feel angry, I wouldn’t be able to take it back.

But then 2017 happened and I began to wonder if I was wrong. I attended the Women’s March on Washington and saw how it connected women across North America—and the world—in one thunderous roar. Standing in the middle or the protests in Washington, hemmed in by furious strangers, I started to see just how powerful and productive women’s anger could be. Later that same year women’s voices swelled in rage again, sparking #MeToo, then Time’s Up, both movements that prioritized speaking out over silence. I wanted to add my own angry voice to theirs, if only I knew how.

I soon realized my supressed anger wasn’t helping me, neither emotionally nor physically. A lot can happen to your body if you’ve been walking around for years with no good place to direct your anger. It isn’t just that you feel smaller or constantly unsure of yourself, although there is that. The more I delved into the research, the more I learned that, for women, a long-term denial of anger like mine can have a surprising number of health consequences, both physical and mental. Suppressed, it can spread and literally make you sick.

How can stifled anger affect your health?

When we get angry, our sympathetic nervous system turns out, which means our body releases certain chemicals and hormones, such as adrenaline, neoepinepherin andcortisol. When it’s present at regular levels, cortisol follows our circadian rhythms, hitting its highest levels when we wake up and then fading throughout the day, theoretically spiking only when in cases of fight-or-flight. But if your body enters into a chronic state of stress—say from always avoiding your anger—cortisol remains in overabundance. In this state, cortisol can wreak havoc, causing an an imbalance in blood sugar, supressed thyroid function and decreased bone density.

Stifled anger can cause a domino effect of risk factors, like poor sleep, and a weakened immune system. People who are stuck in their anger suffer more frequent colds and flus, as well as instances of asthma, skin flare-ups and arthritis, according to research in the International Handbook of Anger, a compilation of studies on anger from around the world.

From recent studies, it’s especially clear that suppressed anger can be especially damaging to our hearts, causing an increase in heart rate, blood pressure and catecholamines, which are stress hormones produced by the adrenal glands, which can lead to various forms of heart disease.

As one team of researchers put it in a paper for the American Journal of Cardiology: “Suppression only decreases the outward signs of anger, not its physiologic impact.” Beyond heart disease, bottled-up anger has also been linked to higher rates of cancer, digestive issues and irritable bowel syndrome, headaches and migraines, muscle tightness and chronic pain, short-term memory problems, difficulty making clear decisions, metabolism changes and cravings, and elevated risk of mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

I knew my 30-plus years of suppressing my anger had chipped away at my well-being. I now realize just how sick it could make me.

Can a rage room help?  

We cannot underestimate the tremendous social pressure on women to be nice, polite and quiet. Research has consistently shown that women are far more likely than men to quash rage. As Missouri-based psychologist Deborah Cox says, many women have difficulty even naming their anger. Cox, a pioneer of women’s anger research, is a former professor at Missouri State University and co-authored The Anger Advantage, in which she argues that learning how to use the powerful emotion can transform a woman’s life. In speaking to women, though, she discovered a common thread: many insist they don’t experience anger at all. The pressure to conform to societal stereotypes was as implicit as it was powerful.

Anger diversion, she adds, is always a compromise of the self. Complete denial can lead to a lot of self-blame, a state I know well. “Over time, that takes a toll on your sense of who you are,” says Cox. “We see women really beginning to doubt their own reality, not trusting themselves to make a decision.”

Wanting to find a way out of that punishing cycle, I wondered if I could jump-start my own bottled-up emotions. Which is how I found myself I standing inside the Rage Room at Toronto’s Battle Sports, an entertainment arena that also offers things like archery and dodgeball. These types of go-wild-and-break-it rooms began growing in popularity during the Clinton-Trump election race, and they now exist across Canada and the world. Maybe it could help me healthily process some of my own rage.

The building itself is warehouse-sized, but the Rage Room itself is no bigger than my bedroom. Rates for a Rage Room visit start at $20 per person. You’re provided with a few crowbars, metal baseball bats, a bin of dishes and glass bottles, plus one large electronic item. In my case, a printer. (You don’t always get to choose your items, although you can bring your own.) Standing in head-to-toe protective gear inside the wood-walled room, I feel hesitant to let my anger bubble up—even though I’ve paid for this opportunity.

Slowly and gently, I plunk a yellow, chipped crowbar down on one ceramic teacup after another. And with every cup and plate I pulverize, I grow increasingly uncomfortable. I’ve never broken anything on purpose. I rarely ever raise my voice. I’m ready to call off the session, but then I see them: a set of plates identical to the ones I owned when I was married—the same plates I had to figure out how to get rid of when my husband unceremoniously left. It’s a coincidence, these plates being here. If somebody had asked me before I came to the Rage Room whether I was still angry about my divorce, I would have answered No. But seeing them there, I realize it’s a lie. Gleefully, I turn them to dust.

Later on, sitting in co-owner Jimmy Cheung’s office, I tell him how surprised I am that it felt so good to smash the plates, as though a weight I’d been carrying around for years had just been lifted. He tells me I’m not alone. Besides being shocked at how hard it is to break a glass bottle (mine bounced off the wall), people are often astonished to discover how much better they feel after a session in the room. “It lets out all those emotions,” he says. “It lets you move past whatever your life might have been. It lets you start anew.”

Interestingly, science cannot yet account for why exercise works so well to mitigate anger and release stress, only that it does. One 2017 meta-analysis of the available research on exercise and cortisol, for example, scoured through more than 10,000 articles before focussing on 32 peer-reviewed studies. Published in Sports Medicine, researchers dubbed the phenomenon the exercise-cortisol paradox, noting that, like stress, exercise also elevates cortisol, but unlike stress it produces positive effects, possibly because it’s often accompanied by dopamine and elevated serotonin levels.

I started boxing regularly two years ago, not long after I also started thinking about my own anger, at the urging of my therapist. As a club that’s primarily for women, transgender, and non-binary people, I’ve seen firsthand that I’m not the only one trying to work through the messy knots of anger, trauma and silence. It took a long time for me to yell—our coach is fond of encouraging members to channel their aggression, often imploring us to shout “sit the f-ck down!” as we throw our fists—and I only just recently lost the urge to say “sorry” every time I landed a punch. But I’m getting better, even teaching class when the coach needs help. The other day, I surprised myself when I shouted encouragingly at a newbie, hesitant to hit the bag, “GET ANGRY!”

Not that punching is a requirement for channelling anger; gentle exercise works, too. A pair of recent studies, published in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity and Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, respectively, concluded that yoga in particular can help lower cortisol levels and also inflammation and stress in the body. Many yoga and movement-based educators, like Toronto-based Serena Oakley also offer trauma-informed perspectives, teaching “resilience through mindful practice.” She’ll lead her students through a gentle exploration of their bodies, asking them to take a sort of non-judgemental inventory of how each body part feels and moves, paying close attention to how their trauma, and also their anger, is stored. She, too, adds that anger is no bad thing, especially for those who’ve experienced trauma: “It’s the voice of our boundaries.”

Can mindfulness help?

Processing anger isn’t just about making a negative emotion go away: it’s about identifying and then meeting your own needs. Toronto-based art therapist Or Har-Gil helps people observe their inner dialogue through making art. Using art to process anger can help people take that first step in a way that feels manageable. That anger, says Har-Gil, can surface when women think they’re exploring something else.

She remembers one client who’d been in therapy for years, but had a breakout moment in a workshop when, after seeing a painting she’d created, was finally able to see her anger toward a parent in a new light. It was a whoa moment of crystallization: the colour, the imagery, even an unbidden aggressive word. The anger became visceral and her client, says Har-Gil, was, at last, able to hold it—both figuratively and literally.

If art isn’t your thing, therapists also recommend making music, singing or dancing—anything to help your anger come up and out, not down. Many therapists and health experts further suggest journalling for those who find it challenging to verbally express their anger. It can be a private, and safe, way for women to surface their feelings, particularly if it doesn’t feel safe to share them with the person they’re directed toward—say, a boss that isn’t listening or an abusive partner. Even if they can’t be used to start a conversation, note experts, the important thing is the anger is no longer repressed. As I started to learn how to voice my anger, I filled journals addressed to people who were no longer in my life. It felt good to get the words out.

When anger is connected to trauma, it can also dredge up a whole suite of other emotions. I found mindfulness helped process a lot of my particularly sticky emotions. Nicole Koziel is a Toronto-based psychiatrist at Women’s College Hospital who works with adults who have experienced childhood trauma, often employing mindfulness techniques. She stresses to her clients that anger, in and of itself, isn’t unhealthy and can be productive. When a client is triggered by a past event, she’ll work with them to validate their anger—an emotion they may not have allowed themselves to feel—and to ground them in the here and now, moving past whatever old, negative feelings they haven’t yet processed.

“For many, ourwhole lives are often long histories of supressing anger, holding it down within the body,” says Terra Dafoe, a psychologist at The Mindfulness Clinic in Toronto. To ensure it doesn’t stay there, she and many other therapists and health experts are turning to mind-body focused solutions to process anger. In other words, if supressed anger is “stored” in the body, then it is helpful to involvethe body to access andrelease it. The idea is to engage in any action that gets your body moving to shift anger through the body in ways verbal expression may not.

In the end, it wasn’t any one thing that helped me begin to see that anger was a good part of me, so long as could express, process and, if need be, release it. Boxing helps. Mindfulness helps. Journalling helps. Smashing a bunch of plates helped. A yoga retreat in the woods helped. Watching thousands of other women share their own rage helped.

Today, I have twin notes to myself at my desk, where I’ll see them every morning. One echoes a phrase Koziel tells her patients: Here, now. The other is a needlepoint I bought off of Etsy shortly after visiting the Rage Room. It reads: Remember who the f-ck you are.