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Why Am I So Angry?

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Dr. McClain,

I have to tell you about a blow-up I had with my partner. I went to my doctor to get my regular bloodwork results. She came into the room with this look on her face that I knew was not good so I was already freaking out. And guess what? I was right. She told me that my current medication wasn’t suppressing my viral load the way it needed to anymore, and that it was time to move to a new one. Of course, she already had the next med in mind, so that’s not the issue. But I scared the hell out of me. I was reminded that there aren’t any guarantees with this virus. And I was also going to have to tell my partner that I wasn’t currently undetectable.

I just felt so sad and scared. And looking back, I should have shared it with him right away. But I didn’t. I sort of swallowed my feelings and pretended like everything was fine. After a couple of days, I decided I had just suck it up and be fine. And I thought I was.

And then the next day. My partner was making dinner for us and he let a dish slip out of his hand. It wasn’t like it was an antique or anything, but it was one of my favorites. I went ballistic. I yelled and screamed! Finally, he said, “I don’t know what’s going on with you but I can’t believe you are going off like this over a serving dish.”

I felt like crap the next day. I am still not sure what made me so angry. Do you think it had anything to do with the news my doctor gave me? 

Dear reader:

You are not alone here. So first, don’t criticize yourself.

Here’s my take on what happened. A loved one, a healthcare professional, a friend, even a stranger, says something, does something, looks at you a certain way… or breaks a serving dish. BAM! You’re off to the races. Wow, are you ever angry! Your anger might take the form of blowing up, or walking away, or sitting and seething. 

Your anger got set off that quickly. You might be asking yourself how that happened? Chances are, anyone who witnessed your anger may have had the same question.

My clients who are living with a chronic condition like HIV often talk to me about their day-to-day challenges. Like you, concerns about their viral load and the potential of dealing with the uncertainty of a regimen change. Finances and insurance coverage. Along with the uncertainty we are all feeling right now in our troubled country and world. They describe the range of feelings they experience as a result. Sadness. Fear. Frustration. And yes, anger.

Anger is Anger. Except When It’s Not
But here’s a question for you: When you felt all that anger, can you identify what might actually have made you so mad? As you suggested, I don’t think it was that serving dish. So here another question? Is it possible you weren’t angry, but were experiencing another feeling – like fear or disappointment – that was just so hard to acknowledge that you were instead diving into that angry place?

Hold those two questions in mind. And then consider another perspective on anger:

Sure, getting angry is part of being human. Keep in mind that anger is a primary emotion. When someone treats you or someone you care about in a disrespectful or aggressive manner, it’s only human to get mad. Nature has wired us to get angry. Where the complications arise is what we choose to do with all that anger. Emphasis on choose!

However, anger is also what therapists call a covering emotion. In other words, we may have an underlying emotion, like fear, or disappointment, or sadness, going on. If we are avoiding acknowledging or experiencing that emotion, we may find ourselves veering into anger instead. And keep in mind that anger may feel more comfortable at the moment, and more acceptable than the feelings it may be covering. For example, have ever felt deeply sad or disappointed, and found yourself on the edge of blowing up at someone? If so, you were using your anger to cover another feeling.

So what does that mean for how you can manage your angry feelings? Here are some ideas:

Maintain self-awareness. It’s easy to go from zero to sixty when something happens that presses your anger button. So how do you stop that from happening? The key is to be aware of yourself, each and every moment of the day. That means knowing when you are might be feeling especially vulnerable. Being your authentic self enhances your wellness.

Start the day with an inventory of your emotions.  Ask yourself: How am I feeling today? Glad? Great! Or sad? Scared? Frustrated? Just plain old mad? Ask yourself what’s causing you to feel that way. Most likely you can identify thoughts or recent events that are bring up all those feelings. If you’re angry, ask yourself why. And if you can’t come up with an answer, cast a wider net for other feelings that may be behind all that anger.

Beware of helplessness. Often, thoughts and events cause us difficulty because they remind us that so much of life is out of our control. Nobody knows this better than someone who is living with a chronic condition. Keep in mind: Anger feels powerful, at least at the moment. Sadness, disappointment, and fear may make us feel helpless. And humans don’t do well with helplessness. I suspect you may have been feeling some helplessness when your doctor told you your regimen was no longer doing it’s job. Right?

Take a look at what you can and can’t control. Taking a moment to acknowledge your level of control, or lack thereof, can help you to maintain your perspective. Is it time to recite the serenity prayer, and accept what you can’t control? Or is it time to take some action to address an issue you have been pushing aside?

Know what you need to do to stay in a mentally healthy place. Again, be proactive. If you start the day with feelings that are hard to sit with, like sadness or frustration or fear, then consider what you can do help yourself cope. Is there someone you can call for a pep talk? Do you need to take time for a walk? Maybe some meditation? A break with some calming music? Or a maybe a religious or spiritual practice? I always recommend to clients that they have a tool box of coping skills they can pull from as needed.

In the moment of anger, take a step back. Do whatever it takes to engage your rational mind, whether it’s taking a few deep, calming breaths, or leaving the room for a moment to regroup, or whatever else you can do to help you think before you react. Review that morning inventory of your feelings. Get back in touch with what’s pushing that anger button. This will help to get a handle on that zero to sixty urge.  

And be ready to apologize. You’re dealing with a lot, and you’re doing the best you can. As are your loved ones. If your anger got the best of you, admit it. Resolve to do better next time. Ask for help. If you haven’t yet has this conversation with your partner, then I encourage you to do it ASAP.

Some final words about anger…

Have a heart. Living with a chronic condition like HIV brings up all kinds of emotions. Accept your own feelings – all of them – and let yourself be human. Be aware of the range of your emotions. Sure, feelings can be scary. But allowing them to see the light of day prevents them from controlling you.

Give yourself a break, and you’ll be that much more able to give others a break, too.

Patience! We’re all in this together.

Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and author in New York City, who specializes in working with individuals diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their caregivers, and professionals. He maintains a website, www.JustGotDiagnosed.com.

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