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How Can I Manage Anger and Protect My Brain?

by Nancy Wurtzel on April 6, 2016

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I’m looking at every option for keeping my brain healthy now and for the long-term.  In Tuesday’s post, I examined chronic anger and how it, along with the resulting stress, adversely affects the body and the brain.  It isn’t practical to think anger can, or ever should, be completely eliminated.  However, there must be some tools that can better help people process these feelings.  I’m on a personal quest to find out how can I manage anger and protect my brain.

First, it’s important to distinguish between a healthy anger and an unhealthy one.

Chronic, Toxic Anger Hurts the Brain

Everyone feels anger and we will never eliminate it.  However, the majority of people can experience these episodes, process those feelings, put them in perspective and move forward.

Not so for the chronically angry person.  He or she is unable to tame their tempers or modulate their reactions.  They often lash out at others and display inappropriate behaviors.  They are incapable of seeing how their actions affect others, and spend an inordinate amount of time rationalizing and justifying their feelings and actions.  Over time, their behavior might even escalate into abuse — verbal, physical or both.

The unresolved anger develops into a toxic pattern.

On the flip side, some people experience similar deep-seated fury, but instead of expressing those feelings they compartmentalize the anger and repress the feelings. These individuals are also being held captive by their rage, unable to move forward.

Unmanaged anger, expressed or repressed, is damaging and will eventually cause harm to many different systems of the body.  The anger has to come out in some way, and it might result in anxiety, depression, headaches, insomnia, high blood pressure and more.

Studies have also shown chronic anger can contribute to stroke and conornary heart disease.

The human brain can also take a beating from anger and its related stress.

How to Get Over Your Anger and Relieve Stress

anger affects the brain-Alzheimer's-memory loss-laughter-happy-agingI have a history of Alzheimer’s in my family and am on a mission to do what I can to avoid the same fate.

Curtailing what I call “brain strain” is at the top of my list for 2016.

I’ve done a fair share of research and soul-searching on this topic, and have determined that I do have feelings of anger that linger and I find it hard to let them go.

No, I don’t resort to temper tantrums and I’m not physically or verbally abusive, but I do have sleep issues and I often feel tense and upset.  Inside my head, there is sometimes an endless loop playing of situations where I felt anger.  Over-and-over, I play back conversations.  Here’s what my internal dialogue sounds like: “I should have said this, I should have done that” “Why didn’t I do (fill in the blank)?” “Next time, I’ll (fill in the blank).”

What a waste of time and energy!  Intellectually, I know this, yet I don’t seem to be able to break the pattern.  And, it is a pattern that has developed throughout my life.

After a lot of research, I’ve developed some tactics that you may also find helpful.

seniors-aging-elderly-pet therapy-dogsHere are a few tips to work on when you are NOT experiencing anger:

  • Each day, take some time to think about anger and your reactions.  Simply look at the patterns and what you would like to change.
  • Get regular exercise like walking, hiking, yoga or whatever helps you work off some steam and recharge.
  • Consider meditation or quiet time by yourself doing something you enjoy.
  • Practice smiling and doing good deeds.  Sounds too simplistic, but it works.
  • Do you have a pet or have access to one?  I’m a big proponet of pet therapy — some snuggle time with my dog, Callie, can bring my blood pressure down in a minute.  No, that’s not me in the picture, but it’s a great image and I melt when I look at it!

Below are some ideas for when you ARE experiencing feelings of anger:

  • When something makes you mad, take a step back from the abyss and ask yourself questions about the level of anger you are feeling.  Are you annoyed or is it real rage?  Can you actually feel the changes in your body?  Do I want this anger to ruin my day?  What are my options?
  • If your anger is directed at a person, you could say, “I’m feeling angry right now, and I’m deciding how to handle it.”  Then just be quiet for a minute.  You might be surprised by the person’s response.
  • If possible, practice deep breathing. Break eye contact.  Take a drink of water.  Yawn several times, which will release tension in your face and jaw.  Just allow yourself to take a beat before responding.
  • Find you are obsessing after-the-fact, like I do?  Break that cycle by giving yourself two minutes to rant, and then put those feelings into an imaginary box.  You can open the box the next day, if needed, for another rant.  I also picture myself taking a vinyl LP and smashing it over my knee.
  • Look online for other suggestions, tactics that might be helpful.  The internet will give you many more tools, but remember it won’t “cure” you quickly.  You’ll have to be aware and work to resolve your feelings and control your reactions.

If nothing seems to help, then turn to a professional.  DO IT!  It may only take a few sessions to get you unstuck and on the road to anger recovery.

If you can let go of the anger, you will protect your cognitive abilities and avoid brain strain.

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