by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
You probably know someone who always seems to be angry. It might even be you? How you cope with your feelings of anger is an important factor that can predict your long-term health. Suppressed anger is associated with higher death rates, higher risk for some cancers, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Anger in women is frowned on, even though it is a natural emotion, because there are few women who are taught to express their anger in a positive manner. As young girls, we were told that anger should be avoided. As adult women, we struggle to untangle our anger from other emotions, such as anxiety and depression. The newer generation of younger women might be a little better off, having been reared with more liberal teachings, and yet most of us find ourselves feeling unsettled with our anger, which often simmers and then explodes at random times.
Anger is powerful. With the best use of anger, we can clarify our objectives and anger can guide us to safety. However, in the worst use, it takes a toll on our health, happiness, and affects our loved ones in negative ways. We need to learn to utilize anger for its benefits and understand its biological and emotional roots.
Fight or flight
When we sense danger, there is an intuitive response of “fight or flight.” If we are afraid, then we want to take flight or flee the potential confrontation that is in front of us. If we are angry, then we want to get ready to defend or fight. These emotions are primal in nature and help guarantee our survival. There are two almond-shaped structures (amygdala) in our brains that are responsible to recognize danger and sound the alarm to your system. When danger is near, your central nervous system releases its physiological floodgates. This can often happen before the thinking part of your brain (prefrontal cortex) is even aware of the danger.
When you become angry, there are neurotransmitters (catecholamines) in your brain that release and cause a bolt of energy for about five to ten minutes. Your heart beats faster; your blood pressure rises, and your arms and legs get extra blood flow. You get a rush of adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol and enter an altered state of consciousness, ready to “fight.” You might even stop thinking (rationalizing). That is why you might not recall what you said or did when you were extremely angry.
This anger system is the same for everyone. What is different is your specific ability to control the instinct. Controlling your anger depends on a variety of factors, which include physiological, biographical, emotional, learned, and gender-related behavior.
Women and anger
As mentioned in the first part of this article, it’s not nice for women to be seen as angry. However, society seems to accept that men tend to be more aggressive to be protective. Many people can ignore a man who explodes with anger, but women who voice their anger are frowned on.
Biologically, the “male” hormone testosterone (high and low levels) has been linked to aggression and irritability in men. Women who also have a testosterone imbalance might have the same symptoms, but they express it differently. It’s not clear if angry people have more testosterone by generating it while they are angry or if their testosterone levels cause an anger response.
As you are probably aware, men are more likely to react to another person or object in anger (external), whereas women will express anger toward others indirectly or at themselves (internal). Younger women have learned to better express their anger, but it’s often anger that is misdirected toward a “safe” target (such as a spouse or child) instead of the primary source. There is still work to do in helping everyone, no matter what age, learn to appropriately deal with angry feelings. In my experience, guilty feelings in women are often traced to misdirected anger. Studies on gender and anger indicate that women usually feel shame, guilt, and resentment after an angry outburst.
Here’s a thought for you to consider. The health risks that apply to men (heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and social isolation) also affect women when they are more hostile, competitive, impatient, and aggressive. What will your anger cost you in your personal life, your family life, and your career?
Alternatively, stifling angry feelings is not appropriate and doesn’t make those feelings go away. In fact, the same response occurs, with exactly the same risks, whether or not you actively get angry with someone. If you try to hide your anger, then it will probably come out in another form, such as anxiety, depression, irritability, resentment, chronic pain, and addictive or self-destructive behavior.
How can you know when anger is healthy and positive? The answer is in understanding what activates your anger. If you can identify what it is that makes you angry and what you can do to control your anger appropriately, then it can be expressed at the right time and place, in an appropriate way. Your anger will be constructive and will not be wasted on shame, guilt, and resentment.
Some of the common roots of anger in women
Anger is a primitive emotion that may have even been influenced by our experience in utero, and the triggers are a learned behavior. If you were brought up by an angry parent or if you were exposed to an explosive (for example, alcoholic) household, there is a good possibility that your brain has learned what “angry” mode is. Newer Research is bearing this out.
If one or both of your parents was passive-aggressive, controlling, or suppressed anger, then that is part of your internal emotional experience as well. If you experienced or witnessed physical or emotional abuse, this can create suppressed anger that may surface years later. A child models the behavior of his or her parents and usually passes the behavior on, unless there is a conscious decision to change that vicious cycle.
You’ve probably also heard of the “good girl syndrome.” You might have been the peacekeeper between your parents—one who was explosive and one who was submissive, and you tried to be the good girl to make things better between them. Even today, women hear comments such as “Let’s not be too bitchy” or “Is it PMS?”
There are other triggers too. One overlooked cause is your diet and what you put into your body. Have you ever heard of the term “hangry”? This is when your body lacks proper nutrition throughout the day and your mood shifts to anger Hungry-Anger. To help deter this from happening, I suggest that you eat three balanced meals and two snacks daily to help keep your moods stable. If you’ve skipped a meal and then overreacted to someone or something, then you know that hunger affects your anger response. While you are usually more irritated than angry, this can be the start of your anger cascade process. If you can eat regular, healthy meals throughout the day, this will help prevent emotional reactions that are really a response to your need for nourishment.
Keep in mind that it’s not only when you eat, but it’s also what you eat that matters. Studies show that a standard, high-fat, high-sugar U.S. diet makes everyone irritable! According to research, families who chose to eat a diet that was low in damaged saturated fats (the kinds of fats found in fast foods and over-processed, packaged foods) had less depression, less hostility, and lower cholesterol levels.
Balanced meals should include lean proteins, healthy fats, and lots of fresh, non-starchy vegetables. A balanced meal is more likely to have a low glycemic load, and this lets your body and your temper remain on a level mode (not too high and not too low). You can maintain steady levels of insulin and serotonin by eating foods that are low on the glycemic index. These foods support a calmer mood. Even adults are more likely to have temper tantrums if they continually overdose on high-glycemic foods (such as simple sugars), especially if they are under a lot of stress. Also remember the more color on your plate the more likely that you have a plate filled with antioxidants and fabulous nutrients.
And here’s another thought – excessive, unhealthy fats, refined sugars, and toxins put added stress on your liver. In order to digest these foods properly, your liver has to create more bile. The word “bilious” means peevish and irritable! So your overworked liver will directly affect your mood. In traditional Chinese medicine, the liver creates a relaxed and harmonious internal environment through the smooth disbursement of bodily fluids. The concept of “flying off the handle” is attributed to disharmony in the liver, and a sudden emotional shift can affect liver function.
If you have a low serotonin level, this could be another cause of anger traced to poor nutrition. At Women to Women, we see depression as anger that is turned inward. If you take antidepressants for depression symptoms, this might boost your serotonin levels and your mood temporarily, but it won’t be a long-term solution if your anger is undiagnosed. If you have symptoms of depression, it will benefit you to examine your relationship to anger, how well you are able express anger (if at all), and how things might change if you can explore your feelings.
Depression and anger are influenced by an imbalance of hormones. This is a primary reason why women who are perimenopausal or menopausal, might have emotions of both depression and anger during this time of change.
Are hormones and anger connected?
Mood swings and irritability are two symptoms of fluctuations in hormone levels and occur during pregnancy, PMS, perimenopause and/or menopause. In your body, the emotion of anger creates pro-inflammatory molecules. Estrogen has some anti-inflammatory qualities, and progesterone has a calming effect. This explains why women might find themselves angrier when their progesterone-to-estrogen ratios become erratic during perimenopause. Some women experience cortisol dominance or testosterone imbalance and this contributes to anxiety and hostility.
When I talk with my patients, they express surprise at their first experience with anger during perimenopause and menopause. Changing hormones are a challenge to the flexible endocrine system. It’s similar to the few days before our menstrual periods started (when our hormones let our “true” feelings come out) and menopause is also a time when the true feelings of anger come out.
I suggest that you see your anger as a source of power. It is the emotion that helps you “fight” for what is yours. This is a great time to stand up for yourself and what you believe in. Let’s review ways to channel that anger that serves you and your best purpose.
Anger: The Women to Women approach
I don’t know anyone who wants to associate with an angry, irritable person. People who are always angry are just usually tuned out. If you want to express your anger in a positive way, then you need to teach your brain to think before you act, especially if you are someone that becomes impulsive or is extremely angry. Or you might want to be able to tell someone close to you when you are becoming angry and use that energy to shift and find ways to channel that energy for positive results.
One suggestion is that you need to be sure that there is no physical reason that may be contributing or causing your anger. Then you are then better able to explore ways to release your anger and move forward. It is very rare, but pressure from a brain tumor can provoke aggressive behavior. If you’ve tried taking action and it doesn’t help, please check with your doctor. Here are some considerations for you to optimize your healthy lifestyle.
Support your hormonal balance and serotonin levels with optimal nutrition. Take a daily pharmaceutical grade multivitamin/mineral complex that is rich in calcium, magnesium, and a quality omega-3 fatty acid supplement. Try not to eat damaged fats, processed foods, and simple sugars. Be sure to eat healthy fats, such as extra-virgin olive oil and foods that are rich in omega-3’s. If you think that your anger is related to PMS or perimenopause, then progesterone might restore a healthy ratio among estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.
Support your liver function. It’s great to eat a healthy diet, but you might consider supporting your liver function by trying a detoxification program. If you’re angry, don’t drink alcohol, as it will make you feel more irritable, angry, and depressed. Try liver-cleansing supplements or herbs, such as milk thistle and dandelion. These can help heal and maintain the health of your liver.
Support your nervous system. Cut back or discontinue caffeine and nicotine. These are very hard on your nervous system. Be sure to take supplements that include adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA and EPA. These help insulate and protect your nerve cells.
Use a diary to track your patterns of anger. It can be helpful to notice if you become irritable at specific times of the month, after eating certain foods, or under special circumstances. If you can learn to know in advance when these triggers set off the stress in your body, you can retrain your reaction, and allow the “thinking” part of your brain to take control. Counting to ten really does work! It will take some practice, but continue to work on your response to your anger and it will make a difference in your life.
Find ways to cope in the moment. In addition to counting to ten, try taking deep breaths, meditation, visualization, or remove yourself from the source of anger. After the feelings of anger are over, take time to clear your head and explore your emotions. Find a better way to release the anger from your body.
Consider releasing anger through physical activity. Another way to feel better emotionally is to have a good workout. This might mean that you turn up the music (if you’re alone) and scream out your anger. Or you can pound a pillow with a plastic bat, use a punching bag, or work in the garden to help clear your head and eliminate any anger you might be feeling. Find a way to express your anger in a physical, safe way to get it out of your body.
Consider releasing anger through creativity. Sometimes a creative activity that appeals to you can help heal your anger. Let your true self show in your creation. It can be preparing a meal, painting, doing a craft project, singing, or dancing. It can truly be anything creative that allows you to express yourself and release your anger in a positive manner.
Give anger a voice. Once you get over the initial feeling of anger and you’re calm, speak your truth and share your feelings. Don’t direct the anger at someone, but discuss why you are hurting and how you feel. If you don’t want to talk about it, write it in a letter or journal. Some people find burning what they have written can help decrease their anger. By writing it down, you can revisit the anger patterns and see triggers and reactions. You’ll then be able to act in a rational and powerful way that won’t leave you feeling guilty. You can decide to channel your emotions to create change and make things better in your home, your community, and the world.
Don’t be scared to ask for support. As you are aware, anger is a complex emotion, and it might have been building inside you for many years. If you need help to explore your feelings or identify your anger patterns, consider emotional freedom techniques, like the Quadrinity Process, or talk to a therapist. The key is to know your real feelings and where they come from, and then you can develop coping tools.
Put anger in its place
Angry women can be the source for change for the better. It’s the feeling of anger and the response to that feeling that helps to fight injustice and intolerance. However, if the anger is misplaced or continues, then there is no power to effect change and it can damage your health greatly. So consider exploring for yourself how to begin to take simple steps to put your anger in a place that helps you as opposed to gets in your way, which it can do when you are not able to understand where it is coming from. Take some of the suggestions to heart and know when you do that your life can take a turn for the better.