President Trump’s election, coming hot on the heels of his own sexual-abuse scandal, ushered in a mad-as-hell era that’s only getting madder and more hellish (especially if you’re the kind of person who prioritizes stability and predictability). Now, in light of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, the general baseline level of intensity seems to match Matt Damon’s rendering of the justice on Saturday Night Live at an, oh, 11 that jumps up to 15 every so often. RIP, 1-to-10 scale.
And it’s not just left-leaning women who are outraged. The #NotHim backlash to Kavanaugh’s confirmation process is fueled by women who believe the judge was wrongly accused of sexual assault. They’re loudly defending their husbands and sons against what they see as a dangerous world for them.
So, it seems that very few of us are exempt from the fury of the current moment. While we’re mostly talking about how this tidal wave of rage could affect the midterm elections, we’re not addressing what it’s doing to us right now or what it’ll mean far beyond November 6. And surely, none of it is healthy…right?
In the short term, getting fired up on a regular basis spikes your stress, raises your blood pressure, and can even lead to heart attacks. One study showed that in the two hours after an intense outburst, the risk of heart attack is eight times higher than normal.
But long term, especially for women, the rage could be the best thing ever.
As Rebecca Traister argues in her new book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, bottling it up is the problem—and that’s exactly what many of us do, in fear of being reduced to someone who is “hysterical” or an “angry black woman” or a “fiery Latina.” But women who break the taboo of female rage take that volatile energy and turn it into a clarifying, even healing force. In just one example, Traister argues that women began to be less isolated and more social in the 19th century, with industrialization growing cities, and religious revivals becoming more popular.
Women who break the taboo of female rage take that volatile energy and turn it into a clarifying, even healing force.
“Once they gained access to one another, the ability to communicate their anger…quickly produced agitation that would become the abolition, suffrage, labor, and temperance movement,” Traister writes.
So how do you actually use this potent emotion while keeping its scorched-earth energy in balance? (Since, let’s face it, channeling your anger into civic action may be intensely satisfying, but it’s not likely to make your life less stressful.)
Channeling your anger in a mindful way
The best approach is to change your relationship with anger, says Erin Telford, a holistic healer trained in acupuncture, reiki, and herbalism who’s earned rockstar status as a breathwork facilitator.
“Anger’s simple message is, ‘I don’t like this. Something needs to be different about this situation.’ All of the violence associated with it is a result of repression and not having the knowledge of how to work with it productively,” she says. And echoing Traister, Telford says anger is catalytic and can be channeled into creating change: “The highest expression of anger is peaceful protest.”
“Almost everyone’s favorite thing to do during a breathwork session or group is to scream at the top of their lungs.” —Erin Telford, breathwork facilitator
I first met Telford two years ago at a group session that was a journey. About 30 of us were lying on yoga mats, doing simple breathing exercises (think: laid-back Lamaze) as Telford spoke over a high-vibe playlist to give guided-visualization instruction and encouragement.
It was a stressful time for me, with relationship and work responsibilities weighing heavily on me; I was too tired to be mad about anything, and initially the session felt pleasantly calming. But as the minutes ticked by, I located my anger (much to my surprise). Telford led the group through a call-and-response that was basically us yelling at the top of our lungs. In the moment, even as I felt incredibly self-conscious (and oh so new age-y), there was the unmistakable feeling of moving heaviness out of my body.
“Almost everyone’s favorite thing to do during a breathwork session or group is to scream at the top of their lungs,” Telford says. “I encourage people to use that primal sound as a vent for all the frustration, resentment, rage, and unspoken ‘no’s’ that live in their body.”
In the days and weeks that followed, I was much less sad, much less tired, and much more hopeful and ambitious. What I liked about it was that the goal wasn’t to make you simply calm down—which can be tricky for women, since we’re socialized not to express anger, so what looks like “calm” is actually just repressed. Like a long run or a great yoga class, breathwork allows you to suss things out through your body instead of your brain—with an extra emotional element I hadn’t experienced before.
At-home anger management
So, how can you start to practice this on your own? Telford suggests two things: First, try this seven-minute video to practice breathwork at home. Second, start thinking about boundaries, which are closely related to anger since that’s the emotion you feel when your boundaries are violated: what they mean to you, when you formed your beliefs around them, whether anyone modeled healthy boundaries for you when you were growing up, and where you need to strengthen yours now.
As you answer the questions, keep in mind, as Telford says, “there are no negative emotions—they are all just information.” Superpower status comes when you can treat anger as information that’s simply charged. Express its “I don’t like this” message directly, and turn it into conscious action (preferably in alignment with your chosen crew to create collective change).
Be patient with yourself and your emotions
But hey, don’t get the idea that this is easy. Superpowers require work.
Even for Telford, anger can be tricky: “It can come on so suddenly and feel so big and all-consuming,” she says. “I’m not perfect. I used to be very emotionally volatile and just within the last five years since I’ve been practicing breathwork, I’ve been able to stay calmer and level in the face of intense situations.”
Working with anger, instead of continuing a cycle of outbursts (followed by shaming and silencing) makes righteous causes more sustainable. And if women are able to do that, Traister’s book makes the case that we could be entering a truly remarkable time: “What becomes clear, when we look to the past with an eye to the future, is that the discouragement of women’s anger—via silencing, erasure, and repression—stems from the correct understanding of those in power that in the fury of women lies the power to change the world.”
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