Imagine the following scenario: Someone cuts you off on the interstate without signaling. Or, some jerk cuts in front of you in line and you’re already running late. Or maybe your coworker left your favorite cup in the sink again.
Your body tenses and your face flushes. You clench and grind your teeth. You literally see red.
Let’s face it: you are angry.
Anger is one of the most primitive emotions. Anger gave our ancestors the drive and power to survive when their safety was threatened.
When we feel that we are being unfairly treated, our amygdala—the brain control center–responds in 0.25 seconds, sounding an alarm that provokes testosterone and adrenaline release into our body. These hormones prime our body for physical aggression.
Luckily, the time between that initial burst of anger and reasoning (by our brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of decision-making) is about two seconds. This is why it is helpful, when feeling that anger first rise, to count to ten!
Many of us would rather avoid this unpleasant emotion. However, storing anger—bottling it up and pushing it down—is harmful to our body. Stored anger leads to depression, high blood pressure, and even heart disease.
Releasing anger in a rational way is good for you! An important element is being able to regulate your anger response. Sit down and discuss. Write it down. Don’t let your amygdala get in the way of your prefrontal cortex.
As an osteopathic physician—one who employs manual therapy with most of my patients—I encounter unreleased anger fairly regularly. Our body has memory and holds tightly to the things we are unable to let go. Recently, I had a new patient visit with a young woman—let’s call her Emily. During our visit, I got the distinct impression that she was angry with me or at least violently disliked me. She was quiet and short with me, and very tense in her body. When she came in for a second appointment—which in itself was a surprise to me—Emily appeared in better spirits: pleasant, calm, even cheerful. She explained that the osteopathic treatment brought up unpleasant emotions in her body—emotions that she had been trying to ignore; feelings related to an incident years ago. The myofascial release techniques we had done the week prior had helped her finally acknowledge and face those feelings, and to start to let them go.
This inevitably reminds me of the main principle of osteopathic medicine: everything is connected. Every patient is mind, body, and spirit; these systems cannot be separated out. The physical and emotional interconnectedness of the human body is a real phenomenon.
I treat a good amount of upper back and neck pain: many of us are used to carrying the world on our shoulders, and eventually our body capitulates under the weight. I have yet to encounter a patient with neck and shoulder pain that did not express some degree of stress, anxiety, frustration, or other unpleasant emotion that causes the body to tense and hold.
Anger can be healthy and useful in the short term. But think about how unpleasant it is to begin with. Why would you want to carry that around? Letting go of anger is profound and good for your body, both mentally and physically.
I am hardly an expert on emotions; osteopathic medicine is fulfilling to me, because I am constantly learning something new about the human body. My patients are all individual, complex, and unique. Osteopathy is intensely fascinating.
My point—if I have one: if you are noticing jaw clenching, teeth grinding, neck pain, headaches, or increased anxiety and trouble sleeping, consider the underlying cause and consider osteopathic treatment. I and my fellow D.O.s (doctors of osteopathy) are here for you, and grateful for every patient that comes into our practice.