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Mental Health

Bottling Up Anger

05/15/2007

Question:

Whats wrong with bottling up anger, and what does it do?

Answer:

Anger is not a "bad" emotion. All emotions are natural, important, and useful. They are an inevitable part of being human. And all humans are subject to the full range of emotions. Learning appropriate ways of expressing these emotions is an important part of physical and mental health.

As children, we all were able to express whatever emotion came to the surface. Just imagine the toddler who easily cries when she's sad or hurt, giggles when she's happy, and perhaps throws things when she's angry. As part of growing up, we are taught socially acceptable ways of expressing these feelings. For example, a toddler may be taught that it's not okay to hit someone when mad but it is okay to hit a pillow. This is an important part of learning to acknowledge one's own feelings as well as respect the rights and safety of others. Violence towards others or oneself is never an acceptable means of expressing anger.

However, this process of learning appropriate ways of expressing emotions is not always easy. Many times, the reactions certain emotions get from adults may teach a child that certain emotions, especially anger, are not acceptable. People often learn that they must hide or deny feelings of anger, "bottling them up" inside without an outlet of expression. But just because someone does not express anger does not mean he/she does not feel it. After all, every human being experiences anger now and then.

There are some potentially negative consequences to bottling up anger. First of all, not expressing anger may lead to distance in relationships. Sometimes it can be important for the people in your life to know you are angry in order to understand you. Finding effective, healthy ways of expressing your feelings often improves communication and intimacy. Of course, this depends on the relationship. In some circumstances, anger cannot be directly expressed to the person or situation that generated the anger either because it's impossible or the negative consequences are too great. However, anger can still be released in healthy ways (see below for suggestions).

A second major negative consequence of holding in anger is the development of chronic stress. It takes a lot of mental energy to bottle up these feelings. This activates your central nervous system's sympathetic response. This means your body remains in a constant state of "fight or flight." In this state of heightened arousal your body goes through a number of changes including your blood pressure rises, heart rate increases, muscles remain tense, digestive processes are disrupted, extremities become cool, among other changes.

Over time, you may experience what we call stress exhaustion. Stress exhaustion is related to a number of physical problems including headache, muscle tension, obesity, insomnia, indigestion, fatigue, and high blood pressure. You may also notice stress affecting other aspects of your life. You may feel irritable, argumentative, anxious, depressed, powerless, isolated, have difficulty concentrating, and experience memory problems. Clearly, stress exhaustion can contribute to medical problems (such as hypertension) as well as mental health problems, relationship conflicts, and poor work performance.

Finally, unexpressed anger may contribute to unhealthy coping behaviors, such as using alcohol or drugs to numb the feeling. Obviously, substance use is not an effective way of expressing feelings. Instead, substance use often leads to other negative consequences. Seek professional assistance with substance use if it leads to negative consequences in your health, emotional well-being, relationships, work, finances, or legal status.

There are many healthy ways of expressing anger. Many people find anger can be released through journal writing, exercising, or talking to an understanding friend. Sometimes people benefit from attending specific therapy for anger management. It is always advisable to seek professional help if anger is causing problems with your mental health, your relationships, or your work. Again, violence toward oneself or others is never an acceptable way of expressing anger.

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Response by:

Suzanne J Smith, PhD Suzanne J Smith, PhD
Clinical Associate Instructor of Psychiatry
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University