I’ve always been quick to anger. At age 2, I kicked a neighbor who said I was cute. When my mother scolded me and asked why, I put my hands on my hips and said, “I am not cute!” Cute was for babies. I wanted to be taken seriously.
As I grew up, I became a perfectionist, and the fact that most situations, and most people – including me – rarely lived up my high standards often pissed me off.
Then, during an especially frustrating period during my early thirties, I met a father named Azim Khamisa. Azim had managed to forgive his son’s killer, and not only did he forgive, he reached out to the killer’s family, and together they launched a non-violence education organization for at-risk youth. Azim had every reason to be bitter, but was not, while I was resentful over the most mediocre of complaints: breakups and cash flow problems. Was there something wrong with him, or was there something wrong with me?
Curious about anger and forgiveness, I embarked on an inward and outward adventure that took me to nearly 10 states and to the heart of Africa. In reviewing scientific studies, interviewing therapists and profiling people who forgave everything from petty insults to parental abuse and even genocide, one of the first things I discovered was that prolonged anger is toxic. Literally.
Anger triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response, which increases pulse, blood pressure, and respiration, while constricting blood vessels. This has been hardwired through evolution to help us react when we find ourselves face-to-face with a charging grizzly or an armed robber.
Yet when the body fails to return to normal after a stressor — when one remains angry, nursing a grudge and stuck in the fight-or-flight response — there are physiological consequences. Merely thinking about someone against whom you’re holding a grudge spikes heart rate, lowers immune response, and floods the brain with neurotransmitters like cortisol and adrenaline, which over time impede problem-solving and increase depression.
A study of thousands of heart attack patients found that those who recalled flying into a rage during the past year were more than twice as likely to have had their heart attack within two hours of the angry episode as opposed to at other times. The study, conducted by the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Research Unit at Harvard Medical School and published in The American Journal of Cardiology in 2013, found that the more explosive the fury, the greater the risk of heart attack.
Yet withholding rage is no better. A team of researchers at the University of Jena in Germany found in 2013 that “repressors” had higher pulse rates and higher risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and other illnesses than their peers.
Since both exploding and repressing rage are dangerous, the goal is to express anger constructively, either to fix a problem, release the emotion, or both. A 2010 study by the Columbia University Medical Center showed that discussing anger in order to solve a problem is associated with a lower rate of cardiovascular disease, while destructive expression of anger or blaming was linked to higher risk.
A well-known burn surgeon named Dr. Dabney Ewin told me that he helped his discuss their anger after noticing that most came in “all burned up – literally and figuratively,” over whatever accident caused their injury. When he helped them forgive, they healed faster.
If you’re justifiably angry, how do you let it go?
While researching my book, Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World, I collected a number of techniques. Here are a few of the most useful ones:
1. Feel your feelings.
Often, resist our anger, and that makes it worse. If you can allow yourself to feel it, perhaps by writing about it, it can be easier to let it go. Often anger hides feelings of hurt. If that’s the case, cry, journal, or talk to a trusted friend or therapist. Everyone I interviewed who was able to forgive went through a process of grief.
2. Reinterpret your story.
At the core of resentment is often a storyline that may not be true. Do you have evidence that the person who made a curt comment at work meant to hurt you? Are you sure your mother-in-law hates you, or might she have been upset when she snapped? The less we take personally, the easier it is to forgive.
3. Address the unfulfilled need.
Dr. Marshall Rosenberg argues that at the core of anger lies an unfilled need, and we must work to fulfill it. It could be respect, a new job, or feeling loved in your marriage. What can you say or do to get your need met?
4. Finally, forgive.
Write a letter of forgiveness, even if you don’t send it.
Once you commit to something, it’s easier to follow through. And you can make your life easier on yourself by making your commitment one of letting go. So commit to dealing with anger productively. Forgiveness is a process, so give it a try.