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Anger and Stress, Letting It All Out

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

In writing for Mentalhelp.net, I like to think that this website, among others, really is educating people about how to maintain mental health, get help when they need it and protect themselves against the very real physical and emotional dangers of stress. While I am a realist and am aware that the word does not reach everyone, it is nevertheless disappointing when I meet someone who seems to have no clue.

Alice is a 50 year old woman and the mother of two adult children, the oldest a 30 year old son and a 25 year old daughter. Sixteen years ago she and the children suffered the tragic loss of her husband to a heart attack. Left alone to raise her children, Alice did the very best she could and successfully raised both kids. However, she herself was not so lucky. Three years ago she was struck with a deadly case of ovarian cancer. She was lucky to survive and is now healthy and cancer free. Her son is getting married at the end of the year. That is where the trouble now lies.

Angry and outraged by what she sees as her future daughter in law’s disrespect toward her, she obsesses over the young woman’s lack of common courtesy toward the person who will soon be her mother in law. This “lack of respect” comes in the form of her future daughter in law’s failure to call her, include her in the wedding dress selection and to not seeking her advice on the myriad of details surrounding the wedding. Reluctant to place her son in the middle of a squabble between herself and his future wife, she tells everyone she knows about the “insults” she has to bear. As she does this, which is everyday, she becomes filled with rage and frustration. Her rationale for doing this is that she “is not holding it in but letting it out.” The point that she misses is that “letting it out” is not necessarily a good idea because it creates corrosive stress.

There was a time when psychologists and other therapists believed that it was healthier to let angry feelings out. Various types of therapies taught patients to punch pillows while expressing pent up feelings from both the present and past. The theory was that unexpressed and pent up anger causes depression. In actuality, “letting it all out” adds to stress, promotes more anger and does nothing to relieve feelings of depression.

It is well established that stress triggers the “fight or flight” response. Normally, that response occurs when we are faced by a very real danger such as a car speeding down the street when we are about to cross. The autonomic nervous system then takes over without us being aware of it. Basically, the autonomic nervous system pulls a switch that turns on the warning system. This switch turns on the adrenal glands, adrenalin flows into the blood stream, the heart pumps much faster so that blood rapidly flows to the extremities so that we can stay and fight or run away, and our blood pressure goes up. Normally speaking, once the danger is past, the switch is automatically turned off and we return to a sense of balance and normality.

The problem is that when people experience stress the switch remains in the on position because stress does not go away. The total result of ongoing stress is that with the system remaining switched on, people experience health problems that impact the immune and cardio vascular systems. That is how we can end up with any one of a wide variety of sicknesses such as stroke, heart disease and other ailments. Stress may not cause these illnesses but it does weaken the immune system so that people are more vulnerable to illness. In the case of Alice, there is a good chance that she has always been a high stress person. Certainly, the loss of her husband and having to raise two kids by herself significantly raised her levels of stress which may have contributed to her developing cancer.

Evidently, when Alice was under treatment for cancer, none of the medical professional advised her to learn and use meditation to relieve worry, anxiety and stress. It is possible that this was advised and she dismissed it. The point is that she seems to know nothing about the health benefits of meditation. She does not want to get sick again but, at the very same time, seems to be unaware of how she is adding to her stress by obsessing over her son’s fiancee.

In fact, the answer for Alice and for all of us, is to integrate mindful living into our lives. Mindful living refers to focusing on appreciating and living in the moment, rather than getting stuck in the past or future.

To learn more about mindful living, I direct everyone to our own Elisha Goldstein, PhD, who teaches and practices mindfulness and living in the now. You can find his articles here at Mentalhelp.net.

Remember, when angry, “letting it all hang out” promotes more feelings of anger and stress.

Your comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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