Updated: Oct 27, 2020
Avoidance and Comfort
Anger seems to be an emotion that we avoid altogether. Like, if we feel it we're somehow "bad" or out of control or something. It's a powerful emotion, one that we might not be used to. If coming out of a dorsal shutdown and up one rung on the polyvagal ladder, anger is way way different than the norm. If dropping down into fight energy anger from a ventral safety state, then it could be experienced as a failure of not having enough self control.
Likewise, anger could be something that we find comfort in. When angry, the world is tamable. We can get the world to submit. To bend. We can feel a sense of power through anger. It could be a relief from feeling like a constant victim. It might feel so good that we think the anger is justified and righteous (and at times, it is).
On the recipient end of anger, it's a scary thing. When someone gets angry and raises their voice or intrudes upon your space or worse, it can be a terrifying thing. We want to get away from it, which completely makes sense. It's hard to be with someone in a very angry place, even if they are not a direct threat. Our bodies tell us to either get away from that angry person or to aggress back. Or maybe to collapse or paralyze in fear.
Anger & What it is
Anger is an emotion that stems from the fight energy of the autonomic nervous system. If we can't be safe at the top of the ladder, we drop down into flight energy. If we can't run away or escape the situation, we drop down further into fight energy of the sympathetic ANS.
When these autonomic states are activated, they can be felt as emotion. For examples:
ventral vagal safety = happiness
sympathetic flight = anxiety
sympathetic fight = anger
dorsal vagal shutdown = sadness
But before existing as an emotion, anger exists simply as an activation of the sympathetic fight pathways and can be experienced as such. The fight energy serves a purpose - to encroach upon space.
In the wild, this is useful for hunting. It's also useful for getting a would-be threat to back off. The lurched forward body posture, tense muscles and furrowed brow are indicators that the organism is not safe and is ready to attack. The upper body would be used to push, punch or throw to create space. And then the legs would be used to get to safety once there is an opportunity.
Anger isn’t just some thing that we feel in the air. Or in our brain. It exists in our bodies. In our muscles. In our heartbeat and in our faces. But since anger is something we tend to avoid or even relish in perhaps, we don't really feel the anger in this way.
So underneath the experience of anger on a conscious level is the autonomic felt somatic experience of the sympathetic fight energy. That fight energy is there for a reason and needs to be utilized mindfully.
When we become too sympathetically charged, it can look like anxiety or aggression, which is the flight or fight energy on the polyvagal ladder. If we drop down the ladder, then that means we are moving away from our safety biological pathways and into defensive energy. If we lose access to our safety biological pathways, we lose access to being in the present moment and especially to feeling connected to our physical bodies.
But this is exactly what we need in order to relieve our bodies of the taxing strain of the sympathetic system. That system is intended to be utilized in large bursts of movement. For running or fighting. Not ongoing, unused accumulation of flight/fight energy. This presents a significant misuse of bodily resources that are otherwise intended for "health, growth and restoration," as Dr Porges says.
I'm not recommending you go and push someone. Or hit them. Or throw them. Please don't. Though something needs to be done. We need to be able to get that "too much" sympathetic fight energy down to a tolerable level.
The Present Moment
The present moment is the answer. And we get to the present moment by accessing the ventral vagal safety pathways. The biological circuitry responsible for social engagement, play, calm and joy. We have to have enough access to these pathways in order to return to the present moment and actually feel the sympathetic fight energy.
If we can actually feel the experience of anger on a bodily felt sense, then we can build a tolerance to the sympathetic fight energy. We can retain a hold on the ventral pathways for longer and longer. If we can be with that anger, then we can notice the intensity of it lessen. We can feel the stuck sympathetic energy discharge with mindful watching.
During this discharge of stuck sympathetic energy, it's not uncommon to feel tingles, waves, temperature changes or muscle contraction and relaxation. Breathing shifts on its own, from the chest to the belly. From short breaths to fuller and slower ones.
But these feelings have to be watched with curiosity, not evaluation. We need to be able to sit with these feelings with compassion and not fear. No, it's not easy and probably won't happen immediately, depending on what you capacity is for doing so.
We have to be gauging our capacity for doing this. And be brutally honest with ourselves about what we can handle. There is no shame or embarrassment in this work. It is what it is. If you can't handle it right now, it is what it is. If you can handle some, it is what it is. If you need someone to be with you, whatever. If you need to buy a program, then whatever. Stop the judging and be honest with what you can handle.
We have to approach this intense stuck fight energy a little at a time. It can be overwhelming. It's probably not going to happen all at once. A little at a time is ideal if your vagal brake is a bit on the weaker side. That's how we strengthen anything. A little at a time, but with practice and intent. This is no different.
I actually have a course that I designed with these factors in mind. Building Safety Anchors is 30 days of specific learning and doing. It's not for everyone. It's for the person that knows they would be best served through a digital course and can commit to 30 days of guided, practical and bite-sized actions. You can actually learn what the heck a "safety anchor" is by reading the first learning module for free.
The Starting Place
But that's where I would recommend anyone start. What brings you to the present moment? What brings your specific consciousness to the present moment? What helps you to feel safe? Connected? Calm? Playful? What brings you to smile? If you don't know, that's okay. Now is the perfect time to start figuring it out! Yesterday is done. Tomorrow is coming. Wouldn't it be great to have a step in the right direction today in preparation for tomorrow?
That last line sounded bad but you get the idea.
Anger isn't the issue. The stuck fight energy is the issue.