Always Angry? How Pent-Up Fury Sabotages the Body.

If you treat each day like a battle, you're going to accrue some scars

Figurines of ancient soldiers fighting.
We're still living under the "fight or flight" paradigm...and it's killing us.
Jaime Spaniol/Unsplash

Steven Yeun won an Emmy and a Golden Globe last year for his performance in Netflix’s Beef. He portrays a struggling contractor, named Danny Cho, whose repressed anger is slowly eating him alive. Danny self-medicates by wolfing greasy bags of fast food, day-trading crypto stocks and berating his little brother.

The show’s action gets going after Danny gets into a road rage incident with a stranger, Amy Lau (Ali Wong). They’re both lucky to escape with their lives, but they devote themselves to ruining each other’s — committing escalating acts of vandalism and violence in order to get even.

I wouldn’t say Beef was my favorite show last year, but I found myself taken with Yeun’s comments on his wretched character, some of which he outlined in his Emmys speech: “There were days when it was difficult to live in Danny’s skin. Sometimes I wanted to judge him; sometimes I wanted to make fun of him,” he said. But Yeun said he followed the advice of one of his on-set colleagues: “Never bail on Danny.”

“I wanna thank Danny for teaching me that judgment and shame is a lonely place, but compassion and grace is where we can all meet,” Yeun concluded.

It’s impossible to watch Danny in that show and not cringe — his anger functions so clearly as self-harm, dragging him ever deeper into a swirling pit of iniquity, pity and shame. Yet early in the show, he seems to be the only person unaware that his anger isn’t a source of power, but his greatest weakness.

Many of us couldn’t dream of doing the despicable things Danny does in Beef; but at least, being a character in a 10-episode show on streaming, the man has the benefit of an arc. He arrives with a shot at redemption and revelation, with a simmering promise of hope. On the other hand: How many people, living in the real world, suffer some similar form of pent-up anger, yet never change? And what is it doing to them?

There’s a massive psychological impact from this sort of behavior, of course. But we’re interested in the physiological impact, too. If you punch a wall, you just might break your hand. If you punch a wall every day, how would your hand ever heal?

Below, we discuss how chronic anger sabotages the body — and offer some strategies for “releasing” it before it takes its toll. Rule #1? “Never bail on Danny.”

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The Health Risks of Chronic Anger

Uncontrolled anger has a long list of unsavory side effects. Think: headaches, indigestion, insomnia, eczema and muscular tension (especially in the neck and shoulders).

Chronic anger can even affect entire systems in the body — a study published in Immunology demonstrated that unchecked anger can even suppress the immune system, which makes you more susceptible to infections and illnesses. This line really stuck out to me: “Individuals with below average levels of anger control were shown to heal significantly slower than subjects less disposed to this emotion.”

The key word there is “control.” It would be ridiculous to suggest that anger isn’t a real and valuable emotion in the human arsenal; the same study discusses anger’s advantageous role for our ancestors, priming their bodies before a fight. But we live in a different age — and slamming your hand against a laptop is not the same as battling a beast in the jungle.

When you’re angry, your blood pressure, heart rate and adrenaline levels are all elevated. This puts a massive strain on the body, and especially on the cardiovascular system. Angry brains are swimming in way too much cortisol, all the time. This can impact your sense of memory, concentration and decision-making…and perhaps compel you to do angry little things (like getting embroiled in a road rage incident), feeding a self-defeatist cycle.

How to Release It

All told, anger takes years off your life. And it will give you a worse one — with a heightened risk of anxiety, obesity and heart attack. What can you do about it?

For starters, as we said: don’t give up on yourself. Look within; find the courage to admit that living this way is less than you deserve (and likely, less than those in your orbit deserve, too).

Consider the ways in which you deal with anger; chronic anger isn’t only a result of repression. It’s also associated with “anger explosions,” or constant micro-incidents in which you yell, smash or stomp…to the detriment of yourself and others. This might feel like you have a normal relationship with anger (you’re expressing yourself, right?), but it’s missing that crucial control component. Anger can be felt and observed within oneself. It can be addressed, discussed and treated with certain actions, which stand to benefit your life in so many other departments.

Here are five strategies to try:

  • Physical activity: Go for a run, lift heavy weights, punch a bag. This is anger at its most useful. We write more about the potency here.
  • Deep breathing: Breathing is the only autonomic operation in the body that we can actually influence. Done with intention, it can help you process anger.
  • Talking it out: Either informally (with friends or family), or in a professional setting (via cognitive behavioral therapy).
  • Timeouts: They sound infantilizing, but giving yourself a timeout is a courageous and adult action. It might manifest as a walk around the block.
  • Experiment: Find what works for you. Scream into a pillow, listen to music, journal, paint, talk to yourself. The key is to find the healthiest way of letting it out.

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