anger

Why is Everything so Annoying?

Ever wake up angry about silly little things or really anxious about aspects of your environment that are unpredictable or uncontrollable? It can drive you crazy. Why is it suddenly so frustrating that your boss eats a smelly sandwich everyday during a board meeting? Is this really something to feel such intense anger about? Is your extreme anxiety about whether or not you will be having drinks with friends tonight actually warranted? What is going on?

Did you ever notice that anger and anxiety about everyday things intensify when you are not feeling well? Have you also noticed that the less you talk about the feelings of unpredictability, uncontrollability, and fear that come with your symptoms or your illness, the more you experience anger and anxiety regarding other things in your life? Sure your boss may be annoying or certain things friends do may irritate you, but why are the feelings so intense? What is occurring is what psychologists call displacement. Displacement is a common defense mechanism where broadly speaking unwanted emotions stemming from anxiety producing situations are put onto more benign situations. So one with a chronic illness may be feeling extremely angry that after months of remission incapacitating symptoms have returned.  Acknowledging this may cause too much anxiety for the person and therefore the person may become extremely angry at something his or her spouse does instead.  Although there may be some real annoyance at the spouse, the anger is really not about the spouse. The underlying anger is actually about the experience of living with the illness.

Sometimes people come to an understanding of what their feelings are actually about but oftentimes they usually need help from others who point it out to them. After all if it was something easy for the person to acknowledge s/he wouldn't need the defense in the first place. Talking about the emotions that follow living with a chronic physical illness can be a very difficult thing to do. However, the benefits do outweigh the costs. Think about it. What will it be like if all the anger, anxiety, sadness, and other emotions stemming from living with an illness get displaced onto various relationships in one's environment? It can cause some serious problems with people's support networks, jobs, and home life. People who live with chronic illness do not need any additional stress; they need positive and functional relationships. Talking with loved ones about the emotions that living with a chronic physical illness bring up can actually make relationships with loved ones even more fulfilling and intimate. One doesn't have to feel alone with his or her emotions.

There are times when people in your life may have a hard time understanding your experience of living with a chronic physical illness. That does not mean your feelings are invalid or that you are being "dramatic." It just means that for whatever reason the person you are talking to is incapable of understanding you at a given moment(s). This does not mean you need to revert back to avoiding talking about your anger, anxiety, fear of uncontrollability, or unpredictability, it just means that you need to find somebody else to talk to. Support groups and psychologists are places where your feelings will be heard. You will see...the more you talk about the core source of your emotions the less you'll be feeling like if your boss eats a smelly sandwich at the board meeting you might need to punch him. Let it out. You do not have to be alone.

Beneath the Anger

Do people ever ask you why you seem to be so grumpy lately? Do you ever find yourself snapping at others easily or just feeling yourself tense up for no apparent reason? Do you question yourself about why you seem to be so angry?

Anger can sometimes be a significant part of living with a chronic physical illness. There are many things that one can feel angry about. The anger is not limited to just the initial shock of the diagnosis or to the adjustments that it forces one to make. Anger can persist throughout various moments in the life of a person who has a chronic illness, and for many different reasons. Do you ever wonder what that seemingly random uprising of anger is about? Think about what is beneath your anger.

Lying underneath your anger may be feelings of sadness and pain. Not everyone is comfortable with allowing hurt, pain, depression, or sadness to be consciously recognized and felt. Sometimes it is easier to just be angry rather than sad. Other times one may be experiencing a sense of not being understood by others, which can follow with feelings of loneliness and isolation. If a person is not aware of these feelings or does not have the words to describe them, an uncanny and unidentified frustration or anger may emerge. There are moments when people are reminded of a life prior to their illness as well. These moments can also serve as catalysts for feeling angry. The underlying reasons are infinite, and although there are certainly shared experiences among different people, it is helpful to figure out your specific reason in a given moment.

Sure one can just be angry because something unfair happened or someone did something that was anger-provoking. However, many times when living with a chronic physical illness you may be left wondering "why am I so angry right now?" Rather than let the anger wear you down or push people away, really think about what is beneath the anger. Maybe keep a journal and track events that have occurred and how you felt at each moment, or try to make sense of it by speaking with a psychotherapist, or maybe meditate. There are multiple paths to coming to an understanding. Find what works for you. Some might think, "what's the big deal about just being angry?" There is no big deal; however, if you find yourself angry more often than not you do not have to live that way. If it is possible to feel content more often than angry, why not? Don't you deserve that? If your answer is no then I would encourage you to think about what is beneath that as well.

Matters of the Heart

For many years it was largely assumed that a Type A personality, anger or hostility was related to onset of heart disease. However, empirical research has found that the relationship between heart disease and Type A personality is quite complicated and that the impact of hostility on the development of heart disease is at best weak (Marks, Murray, Evans, Willig, Woodall, & Sykes, 2006). Generally, there is much less heard about Type A behaviors, hostility or anger in those who have already survived and live with heart disease. This is unfortunate as there are multiple factors that can contribute to the emergence of feelings of hostility or anger when living with heart disease. For example, a person who has just undergone cardiac surgery may be experiencing excruciating pain. This person's ribs may have had to be broken in order for the surgery to be performed, arteries from other parts of this person's body may have been moved in order to replace damaged arteries. It is extremely difficult to imagine this person not being at the very least a bit angry about what his or her body has had to go through. This is only one scenario. Imagine another person, who happens to have a Type A personality but whose activities are significantly limited because of a heart condition. This person might be furious that running a marathon, doing all the house chores, and working long hours is no longer an option...talk about lifestyle changes! There are numerous examples and I am sure others can include additional ones but something that is certainly painful and that cannot be avoided is the meaning associated with damage to one's heart.

Many ancient traditions believed that the heart is the seat of the soul, and held the heart in higher esteem than the brain or mind, which most modern day westerners do not do. However, even modern day westerners think of the heart when they think of life. It is the organ that pumps vital blood throughout our body that keeps the body and the brain living. Similar to older traditions, most modern communities acknowledge the heart as the origin of love. Even little children draw pictures of hearts when they think of love. Damage to any vital organ of our bodies is likely to create anger, pain, frustration, or a need to exert control. However, the heart is the only organ that has all of these transcultural and transgenerational meanings attached to it. Literally one's heart is "broken" or "hurt" or "damaged," and it may feel completely out of one's control. Yes maybe one could have smoked less, ate healthier, or exercised more, but then there are just some who have heart disease running in their family and could not avoid it despite being pinnacles of health. Regardless of the contributing factors, nobody asked for a broken heart.

Similar to an emotionally "broken heart," sometimes people who live with heart disease may feel like nobody understands their pain. They may want to be "left alone" and at times can become depressed. They may feel a need to try to micromanage or control whatever they can on their own without help from others, much like someone who has been let down by another person--except this time their own body has let them down and hurt their hearts. It may become easy to want to protect one's own heart from any more pain, to close it up, which may even manifest physically by slouching and sinking one's heart into the chest rather than standing up straight and showing one's heart to the world.

This sounds sad, but it does not have to be. Think about people who have had their hearts broken by others, became depressed and sad, and even angry. Many of these people a few years later or maybe even sooner are the happiest they have ever been and in loving relationships, perhaps with others but most importantly with themselves. Yes, there are other people who have had their hearts broken and have never seemed able to recover but that is a choice guided by fear...fear of standing up straight again and showing one's heart to the world; heart emotionally but also heart physically.

Emotions and the body are not so disconnected as it is easy to sometimes believe. There are reasons why meanings of love and life have been attributed to the heart. Sometimes a way to get to an emotional place that you'd like to be is through the physical. As discussed above the physical can certainly negatively impact one's emotional state but it can ALSO do the opposite. Ok, so your body has let you down, your heart hurts and is in pain...what are you going to do about it? Will you live in fear of feeling pain again, hiding your heart deep within the cavity of your chest, or will you stand up tall and say I love you to life...even if sometimes it hurts. Maybe you can try to make some physical changes (CHECK WITH YOUR DOCTOR FIRST)such as engaging in certain yoga poses that focus on opening up the chest area. For something less physically rigorous, try some reiki or meditation on the heart. If approved by your doctor even try or some aerobic activity, such as running, dancing, or swimming. Physical changes can also include behaviors like singing, which involves breathing through the belly and chest and brings fresh life giving oxygen to the heart. One can also read poetry that invokes loving emotions. There are many options.

I do not think anyone would suggest that it is not ok to feel angry, sad, or at times even want to isolate yourself. These emotions are ok as long as they do not take over. Anything extreme is usually never a good thing but all in moderation is not so bad. Surviving and living with heart disease can be a traumatizing and terrifying experience, and one has a right to feel whatever he or she feels about it. The question remaining though is, will you be that person who never gets over one's lost love or will you be the person who after experiencing a lost love eventually finds happiness like never before? Remember your heart may have been broken, but your heart--YOU are still alive.

Marks,D.F.,Murray,M.,Evans,B.,Willig,C.,Woodall,C.,& Sykes, C.M. (2006). Health psychology: Theory, research & practice (2nd ed). New York: Sage.

Emotional? Physical Feelings? Both? Confused!

"I am so angry! This person just irritates me so much. I don't know why! He just does."

"I feel so sad today. I think I'm unhappy with my job or maybe I am unhappy with myself...I am not really sure."

"I just feel so depressed and I don't know why."

It is not uncommon for people who live with chronic physical illness to at times experience unwanted emotions (e.g. anger, sadness, depression) and to be unsure about where these feelings came from. Sometimes the person is able to identify the cause of their emotion and other times the person may remain very confused about their experience. Oftentimes, one thing that people who live with chronic physical illness are not uncertain about is their physical pain or discomfort. For example, one can identify pain in the muscles, or a headache, or complete exhaustion. So how are these two things related? Emotional pain and physical pain...are they so seperate after all?

It takes up a lot of emotional energy when a person who lives with a chronic physical illness suffers or hurts physically. The pain may be felt in a physical body part such as a chest or a kidney but that physical body part is also a part of the entire human. There will certainly be some emotional reaction to the symptom even if the person has experienced the same symptoms thousands of times. A person can think to him or her self with ease, "I know what I am feeling right now. It is my ____ acting up." However, intellectual understanding does not necessarily negate emotional feeling. Even if a person has experienced this symptom numerous times it may make him or her furious that he or she needs to deal with this regularly or maybe very sad about the limitations it imposes on his or her life. It is easy to ignore these feelings in the service of a "I am used to this, life goes on" attitude, but these feelings will not just disappear; they will express themselves in one way or another. For example, one's anger about having to deal with the illness symptoms may be displaced onto a coworker who suddenly irritates the person to no degree for absolutely no reason, or a piece of constructive criticism at work causes one to break down in tears, masking the underlying sadness about the chronic illness. Displacement of the feelings of one's suffering onto something else in the person's life can leave the person feeling very confused and disillusioned.

It is sometimes not easy for a person to really admit to him or her self that the physical symptoms of his or her illness are causing emotional reactions. People may think "this darn illness is hurting my body and now its causing me emotional pain too!" Some people may feel that admitting to the emotional effects of the physical illness is letting the illness "get the best of them." However, in a way the opposite is true. If feelings are not acknowledged and directly and appropriately expressed, they will find a way to manifest...usually in a displaced way. It may be difficult but it is worth the struggle to get to the point where one is able to say, "I am angry because I hurt so much today" or "I am really sad that I can't run like I used to" or "I am depressed that I cannot be there for my kids in the way that I really want to be." Sometimes one may need to seek professional help, as this process of acknowledging how the physical and the emotional dance together as one can be very difficult.

People can ignore the holistic nature of being human...the interconnection of physical and emotional; however, pretending that a duality between body and mind exist does not in fact create such a duality. The feelings will still be there and if expressed inappropriately and in a displaced manner may cause more confusion and problems for people than would have resulted from the acknowledgment of the feelings stemming from the physical illness. Yes it is not always an easy task as these feelings may oftentimes not even be conscious as they can be so painful. It is important to seek professional help if you see that your emotions have been causing problems in your life, your social relationships, or your job since you have been diagnosed with your illness. Maybe you do not have to remain confused.