Share this Post
There is a growing body of scientific research about the relationship between our minds and our bodies. As an integrated health practice, we are excited to see Western science finally acknowledging what other medical traditions have long known: that how we feel emotionally has a profound impact on our physical well-being.
When Anger Becomes a Problem
Before digging into the research on how anger and pain are related, let’s be clear: we should never judge our emotions as good or bad. Our emotions just are. So many of us grow up being told that feelings of sadness, anger, or frustration are negative and best avoided. This leads us to believe that we need to overcome these emotions and that happiness should be our baseline.
If that’s your mindset, it’s time to let it go. Human beings experience a wide range of emotions and you are entitled to feel every single one of them. Can anger make pain worse? Yes. Can it have other negative effects on our lives? Yes. Does that mean you should deny yourself that emotion entirely? Absolutely not.
Someone cuts you off while driving. The dry cleaner ruins your favorite sweater. Your internet is down and you’ve been on hold with the cable company for an hour trying to get it fixed. These are all circumstances in which you may feel passing anger. That’s normal. Anger becomes problematic when it’s an emotion that consumes your life. When anger is something you either feel all or most of the time or when it’s your first reaction to minor inconveniences and misunderstandings, it’s not healthy.
People who are angry find power in their rage. Anger can make you feel like you have agency in a situation that is uncontrollable. When you take anger out on others, it’s a way of passing an uncomfortable emotion onto someone else. People who don’t feel empowered in other aspects of their lives embrace anger as a means of exerting some form of control.
Why Chronic Pain Patients Have Difficulty with Anger
You’ve probably heard it said before that anger is a secondary emotion. We first feel pain, hurt, sadness, or frustration; we react to these feelings with anger. When you think of anger as a reaction to pain, it makes sense why so many chronic pain patients experience problems managing their anger.
Patients who suffer from chronic pain often feel like they have little to no control over their situations. Many have a history of going from doctor to doctor, feeling unheard and unhelped. Family and friends don’t always understand and may give unwelcome advice––try these essential oils, get out of the house more, just push through it. Insurance companies may deny coverage for much-needed treatments. Is it any wonder why 70% of chronic pain patients also have issues with anger?
How We Experience Anger in Our Bodies
We know how anger makes us feel emotionally. Concentrating is difficult, we feel on edge and easily irritated, and sometimes we take our anger out on others. When a person has made us angry, we may dwell on what they did and how we might make things right for ourselves.
Physical symptoms of anger include:
- Muscle tension
- Loss of appetite
- Increased heart rate or chest pains
- Increased blood pressure
People describe anger as a feeling that courses through their veins. Your body may feel hot, your head might pound. There is no emotion that better demonstrates how our bodies and minds are interconnected than anger.
What the Research Says About the Relationship Between Anger and Pain
Anger predisposes people to chronic pain, but it is also a precipitating, exacerbating, and perpetuating factor. In other words, absent any other physical disorder, anger alone can cause pain, but for patients who already have chronic pain, anger may make that pain worse or cause it to last longer.
Scientific studies show that anger can cause pain to intensify in chronic pain patients. How does this happen? There’s some recent research indicating that anger can increase inflammation; inflammation, in turn, can exacerbate chronic pain. Patients who express having problems with anger management have higher blood levels of c-reactive protein, a substance produced by the liver as a responsive to inflammation, and interleukin-6, another marker of inflammation in the body.
Pain and anger, then, are a vicious circle. Pain causes anger; anger causes pain. It can be a difficult cycle to break out of once you’re in the thick of it, but the good news is that there are a lot of options out there for both coping with anger and treating pain.
Effective Ways to Cope with Anger
Get in the habit of tuning into your emotions. When you’re overwhelmed with emotion, pause, think about how you’re feeling, and label it. Is it anger that you’re feeling? Dig a little deeper––remember that anger is a secondary emotion. What lies beneath your anger? Never deny yourself the right to feel angry; instead, accept it. This alone can go far in helping you address your anger management problems. Like any other emotion, suppressing anger only ends up making it worse.
Some effective strategies to help you cope with anger include:
Exercise and Movement
Gentle, calming movement, like yoga, can help lower blood pressure, ease muscle tension, and put you in better spirits. Other patients prefer the intensity of cardio as a physical outlet for the frustration they feel. Either way, exercise is a great way to manage anger.
Google deep breathing exercises and you’ll find no shortage of ideas for coping with anger through breathwork. It may sound a bit “out there,” but breathing exercises are proven to be effective, lowering blood pressure and heart rate. The simplest breathing exercise involves inhaling slowly through your nose, and exhaling slowly through your mouth. Repeat until you feel the tension leave your body and your heart rate come back down. Another breathing exercise to try is alternate nostril breathing.
Meditation is another science-backed method for reducing both the emotional and physical symptoms of anger. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to set aside an hour or two a day to reap the benefits of meditation––even starting with a few minutes at a time can make a difference. If you don’t know where to start, try a free guided meditation app or YouTube video.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
When you’re angry, your muscles tense up. The American Psychological Association recommends progressive muscle relaxation as a proven strategy for anger management. This is another practice where an app or video might be helpful; you’ll lie on your bed, couch, or floor, breathe deeply, and consciously tense muscle groups for a few seconds before relaxing them and then moving onto another muscle group until you’ve relaxed all the muscles in your body. If you suffer from insomnia, progressive muscle relaxation can be an excellent way to unwind before bedtime.
Practice Creative Endeavors
Art therapy can have a profound impact on our overall well-being. Whether it’s music, painting, drawing, knitting, or sculpting, try taking up some form of art to help you express your emotions in a safe, productive way. If you don’t think you’re creative, try adult coloring books––you might be surprised by how relaxing it can be to grab some colored pencils and fill in an intricate mandala drawing.
Get the Support You Need
If anger is a persistent problem in your life or you’re a chronic pain patient struggling with the emotional toll your condition has had on you, seek out a therapist to help you talk through what you’re feeling. You may also want to look into support groups, either in person or online, for patients suffering from chronic pain or your specific disorder. Being able to express your emotions without worrying about judgment can be immensely freeing for chronic pain patients, as can the camaraderie of being part of a group of people who understand what you’re experiencing.
How Core Medical & Wellness Helps Chronic Pain Patients
Because pain and anger are intertwined, coping with the anger you feel is only part of the breaking out of the cycle. The other part is treating your pain. We can help you do that at Core Medical & Wellness through our interventional pain management program.
At our practice, we take a holistic approach to addressing pain. We specialize in helping the patients who feel they have tried every treatment, seen every specialist, and taken every medication without any results. Our team of pain management physicians offers a combination of conventional therapies, like nerve blocks and injections, alongside cutting edge treatments like bone marrow concentrate therapy. We treat the whole patient, not just the symptoms.
Schedule an Appointment with a Pain Specialist
If you’re angry about the pain you’re suffering, we want you to know that we will listen and we won’t stop listening until you feel heard. We understand how frustrating it can be to deal with chronic pain and its impact on your quality of life. Contact us today to schedule a consultation with one of our pain management physicians.
Dr. Shelly Sharma is double board certified in anesthesia and pain medicine. Dr. Sharma graduated summa cum laude from Drexel University with a B.S. in biomedical sciences and received her M.D. from St. George’s University School of Medicine. Read her full bio here.