Anger, depression and forgiveness

” I should’ve gotten that job!” “When will he/she treat me right?!” “Why didn’t I save more money??”

I’m an expert at beating up on myself. How many of us regularly berate, chastise and downright hate ourselves? My guess is that many depressed people also wrestle with self-anger at one or more times during a depressive episode and even during times of remission.

Just as mood swings weren’t always a part of my typical emotional profile, neither was anger. Although never forgotten and tucked away in a dark corner of my mind, I never have really admitted that anger is as just a part of my depression as despair and hopelessness. It was there, no doubt, but was it a cause? When most people, even us patients, think of depression what’s often the image (auditory or visual) that comes to mind? Crying, tucked into a ball, under the covers, staring out the bedroom window. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, anger and depression are quite often closely linked to one another. Althought Sigmund Freud’s theories are probably not the focus of today’s counseling, psychology and psychiatry programs, there is at least one aspect of depression that holds up to (my) scrutiny. “Depression is anger turned inward.” Yes, the causes of our depression and anxiety are often tangled, mishappen knots which can take eons to unravel, but anger at something or someone may be near its core.

Adaptive vs Maladaptive Anger

I will admit that I am my own worst critic. “Would you talk to your best friend the way you talk to yourself?” is a phrase many in therapy have heard. (Or, outside of therapy!) Just like a finger on a hot stove, anger is a warning that something is not right with us. The failing grade on an exam, the sarcastic remark from a co-worker may trigger anger . Anger is a feeling and what we choose to do with that anger can be viewed as adaptive or maladaptive in nature. If someone cuts in front of me in line at the grocery store, I may feel a flare of anger. What action do I choose to peform in response? Adaptive coping might include: ignoring it (What’s the big deal anyway?), letting him know that the line ends by the cat food display, asking him/her if things are alright? is there an emergency? The last one and maybe even the second could be seen as questionable, depending on context, person, time of day, etc. Malaptive coping responses might include: yelling, pushing back to my place in line, demanding to see the manager, hitting.

By now, research generally supports the physical and emotional toll that anger, especially maladaptive anger, can take on our bodies. High blood pressure, ulcers, headaches, increased anxiety and depression are just a few examples.These are not new concepts and it’s not just me supporting these ideas. Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins University, Emory University… all medical authtorities weigh in on the damaging effects of not forgiving ourselves/others in relation to our anger.

Forgiveness, but how?

The question I have for the therapist is “How do I do it? Really, like what are the steps? ” I am not lazy, but over the years I have less and less energy to figure things out when experts can be relied upon for assistance. Unhealthy anger, when reduced, can lead to lower levels of depression. No, I am not saying that this is THE answer. But, maybe, for many of us it’s worth trying. Here are the components of forgiveness. **I do not take credit for them, only for making folks aware of a coping strategy.

!) Acknowledge and process anger. A friend, therapist, religious leader, or support groups are options.

2) Acknowledge revenge fantasies in yourself with trusted others. (Personally, I spent many years indulging in fantasies the ways in which my abusers could be punished. Of course, this eventually became not only exhausting but useless and detrimental to my health.)

3) Common ground – This is often a very difficult part of the forgiveness process. Finding common ground with the causes of your trauma/people you blame. “We are both human beings. Human being are flawed. We both have families.” Not easy by a long shot, I know.

4) Acknowledge the differences between yourself and your aggressor. How you wouldn’t have acted in the same way is key to your own mental health.

5) Forgive yourself. Our anger at ourselves finds at least some origin in blaming ourselves for our traumas, abuse, neglect and more, even though we know rationally that this is not the case.

Accept our vulnerability. Acknowledge that we are imperfect humans. But, we try. Oh Lord, do we try! I am hoping that this post strikes a cord with many. The subject matter certainly forced me to be more honest and open with myself.

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