Getting Physical with Anger (in a good way)

In my last post, I introduced physical anger work as a tool for getting grounded. I gave instructions on how to deliberately release anger in a time-limited way using props, such as a punching bag or pile of cushions, a bat, and a 30-second timer. This method protects people, respects pets or anyone else who might be around, and protects objects, while giving our bodies the anger release we need.

Now I want to share more about what happens when we do this. I witness the process in my clients when they do physical anger work exercises.

  • They snap out of a trance state and become alert, focused.
  • They get a surge of energy.
  • Their mood usually improves immediately.

How does physical anger release work?

First, anger exercises alert us to our senses and proprioception, like other kinds of physical exercise do. When you walk, run, swim, or do yoga, you feel your body more than you felt it while working on the computer or doing dishes. So, you become more awake to your sensations: breathing, the firing of muscles, impact, joints moving, etc.

But second, physical anger work also engages us with a big slice of emotional experience that we spend much of our time controlling, ignoring, or denying. When you combine body awareness with anger awareness, you get:

  1. Wakefulness (being grounded and mindful)
  2. Empowerment (a surge of energy and well-being), and
  3. Clarity (better understanding of your anger and its origins)
  4. Calm (the opposite of panic attacks)

Won’t hitting a punching bag just make me angrier?

No. It helps you feel and express the anger that’s already there. You can’t manufacture anger out of thin air: if you feel it, there’s something behind it. Doing physical anger exercise helps you discharge the stored energy you’ve accumulated from keeping a lid on your anger (or trying to). The clarity part of the experience means you know more about what you actually feel and who the target of your feeling is. AND nobody gets hurt in the process.

Physical anger exercises promote mindfulness, which is the psychological process of bringing one’s awareness to what is happening in the present. Anything you do that promotes mindfulness ultimately helps you deal with emotion more consciously: it gives you a kind of control.

What about my health?

Maybe you’ve heard that expressing anger is bad for your health. I believe this is a dangerous myth that some in my field have chosen to support by citing very limited laboratory studies. These studies fail to capture the complexities in everyday anger as it occurs in relationships; and they have no way to measure real, authentic emotional expression or the inhibition of it. Often this research speaks of anger while looking at aggression or hostility: definitely not the same things. So, what gets touted as “anger’s” deadly cardiovascular impact comes from decades of research that’s either over-simplified or a complete mismatch to the internal experience of anger. My colleagues and I wrote about this problem back in 1999.

Fortunately , some emotion researchers study anger more in cultural context. These scholars see anger having positive health effects for some. And the triggers for anger, according to these scholars – poverty, abuse, chronic workplace stress – seem much more likely culprits for health problems than the emotion itself.

Homework: Think of your own physical anger exercise and try it for 30 seconds at a time. Try ripping newspapers, hammering nails into old boards, or hurling ice cubes at a brick wall. Stop and breathe. Then check how you feel. Write about your experience.

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