Life is full of many challenging circumstances and we typically have an emotional component to how we respond to the challenging circumstances of our lives. Money is tight so we worry whether we’ll have enough to get by. Someone treats us badly causing us to feel sad or upset. We get frustrated or angry when expectations are not met, and so on. We can all fill in the specifics to these general categories. Prolonged or frequent negative emotional states can be unhealthy and certainly can affect the quality of our lives as well as the quality of the lives of the people we deal with on a regular basis. In this column, I want to focus on two types of negative emotions which can be destructive—fear and anger.
This emotion includes feelings of anxiety and worry. It is natural and healthy to be afraid if you are being chased by a stray dog or in danger of being mugged. Our body releases stress substances such as adrenalin which help us to run faster or to defend ourselves better to deal with these kinds of fearful situations. But when we are frequently or constantly fearful, anxious, or worried about something our body responds the same way by releasing these same stress substances. The result can be harmful and cause elevated blood pressure, feelings of unrest, inability to relax, fatigue, poor sleep and a host of other problems both physical and mental.
Think of passing another car on the interstate as a good analogy. You press on the accelerator, the engine revs up and you speed past the other car. But, then you slow back down to normal operating speed. What if you kept your foot on the accelerator constantly? Would the car be going too fast? Could the engine overheat and suffer a breakdown? It’s a bit simplistic but the same holds true for your body and your mind. If you are over-revved with fear you are likely headed for a breakdown.
I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count all the things that might cause me to get angry. I am in the 10 items or less aisle in the supermarket checkout with the person ahead of me checking out a full basket of way more than 10 items. I then make it to the parking lot to find me car dented by an unknown and unnamed perpetrator. Am I feeling angry? You bet!
Anger comes in different forms such as frustration, annoyance, rage, etc. In many ways it is a secondary emotion with the primary source traced back to some event such as being hurt, experiencing a disappointment, or dealing with a frustrating circumstance. Regardless of what initiates the anger response, the net result is similar to what happens when we experience fear—the body releases stress substances which get us all revved up. In the short term this might be beneficial, but in the long term frequent or persistent anger wears us down. It’s bad for your heart and your blood pressure, not to mention your relationships. Being around someone who is full of anger is not generally something we enjoy, especially if it seems to be all the time. And since we are with ourselves all the time, it actually is an unpleasant experience just being with that angry person, even if that person is myself.
Fear and Anger
Those last statements about being around or with an angry person also apply to fear. Most of us get uncomfortable being around someone who is overly anxious, worries excessively, or is constantly nervous and fearful. In many ways both anger and fear represent states of activation which trigger the “fight or flight response”. As I have mentioned, this can elevate performance in the short term, but in the long term the health consequences are destructive.
These circumstances generating fear and anger are not limited to the unique happenings in our lives as individuals. The stock market falls and the economy suffers—it’s a bit scary. Terrorist bombings kill innocents and we all fill some element of fear about these kinds of events we cannot control. Large corporations evade taxes or outsource jobs to sweatshops overseas. An American journalist is beheaded by extremists. Do these kinds of things leave us feeling mad about what is going on in our world?
“Allostasis” is a term which describes the sum total of homeostasis or balance within the body. The factors which disrupt allostasis are referred to as our “allostatic load”. If there are too many stressors pushing the body systems out of balance the whole entire system gets overloaded and breaks down. Like any structure or operating system we have a load tolerance or strain limit or maximum capacity. Exceed these limits and something bad happens. It really is as simple as that.
Just telling you that too much fear and anger are bad for you isn’t all that helpful, so let me give you some strategies to combat these. An attitude of trust is a great antidote to fear. In fact, if you are truly trusting, there is no room for fear at all. If you do get afraid, worried or anxious, recognize that these emotions do nothing to change the outcome. Since most fears are rooted in some undesirable future occurrence recognize that whatever eventually happens, good or bad is not going to be influenced or changed by your worries. All you are likely to do is make yourself miserable with your fears. Cultivate trust and you will experience greater peace and less anxiety.
As for anger, I recommend a generous amount of compassion. Learning to be more compassionate and practicing this represents a much healthier choice to make. So many of the things that cause you to feel angry are forgotten and irrelevant soon enough unless you continue to dwell on them. Cultivate an attitude of compassion and you will likely be more joyful, forgiving, and happier. When you are filled with compassion and love, there isn’t much room to carry around anger.
Trust and compassion are two great ways to reduce or even eliminate the destructive emotions of fear and anger. The choices are yours to make.