Roz Kalb , Psychologist
1 May 2023 | ~9:26 Engagement Time
Anger is a very powerful emotion. It can give us energy and strength to problem solve and move forward, or it can paralyze our thoughts and stop us in our tracks. It can feel good to let it out or it can make us feel guilty and embarrassed. It can help us get a point across to others or it can drive them away or even frighten them. Let’s look at anger more closely to learn:
Some people carry anger with them throughout their lives. Childhood trauma or other early stressors can sometimes precipitate a lifetime of anger. But most people experience anger in response to common triggers. A person may feel:
Each of these feelings can come and go – or come and stay – for a person living with MS or a support partner. Let’s look at these feelings one by one. You may find that some or all of these situations happen from time to time in your life.
When one person in a family is diagnosed with MS, the entire family is affected. Suddenly, the life that seemed so secure and predictable, becomes uncertain. Plans and dreams that had been taken for granted may suddenly seem out of reach. Daily activities are more challenging. Getting around in one’s environment can be exhausting or even impossible. The personal control we take for granted as adults may be challenged by mobility issues, bowel and bladder symptoms, problems with thinking and planning, or many other symptoms of MS. Support partners may find themselves taking on a variety of additional tasks and responsibilities that they’d previously shared with their loved one with MS.
MS can be a very tyrannical master. It does what it wants to do, when it wants to do it. When people find themselves unable to do the things they used to do, frustration builds. When people experience debilitating MS symptoms in spite of doing everything they can to manage the disease and attend to their wellness, they feel powerless in the face of MS.
The uncertainty and unpredictability of multiple sclerosis can often lead to feeling medically and emotionally vulnerable. When people feel vulnerable, they may worry about their health, well-being, and safety. Additionally, there may be fears about how others will react to their diagnosis or judge the ups and downs of symptoms. Anger may act as a protective armor to mask these feelings of vulnerability.
Clearly, it is normal to feel anger or rage when attacked by another person. But attacks of MS can cause those same feelings. Why is this happening? What could I possibly have done to deserve this? How can I fight back? MS, the immune system mistakenly attacks health tissues in the central nervous system. But for many people, it can begin to feel that the disease is attacking their whole beings.
No one likes to be disrespected or unheard – with family and friends, with one’s healthcare providers, or out in the world. Living with a disability means that others may see you differently, react to you differently, treat you differently. People who use mobility aids often report that others treat them as though they’re less smart or capable that able-bodied folks. Servers in restaurants may ask a family member what the person with MS wants to eat. Healthcare providers may put their priorities for your care in front of your own.
Stress creates a fight-or-flight response in our bodies that gears us up to protect ourselves or get away as fast as possible. Stress that’s ongoing – related to managing an unpredictable disease, carrying on at work, managing a busy household, dealing with medical bills, and so on, can create a high level of stress for people with MS and their support partners. And sometimes that built-up stress can feel like it’s going to explode.
Depression is a very common symptom of MS. We know that many people who are depressed may be very irritable or have angry outbursts in addition to the more common symptoms of depression like prolonged sadness, loss of interest in pleasurable things, among others. Since support partners are also prone to depression for a variety of reasons, they may also display this kind of irritability.
The power of anger can feel good – like letting off steam or loosening a knot inside yourself. But it can also be exhausting for you and others when it feels never-ending, harsh, hyper-critical, or even abusive. Whether we direct anger at ourselves or at others, it carries a heavy weight. Try asking yourself the following questions:
Answering these questions can help you explore the meaning and impact of your anger – which is often the first step to getting a better handle on it.
Anger produces its own form of energy. Since expending that energy can also be exhausting, it’s important to put the angry energy to good use. It can help power you in a variety of useful ways:
When your anger feels like an amorphous blob of negative feelings, it’s important to think about what’s causing it. The better able you are to pinpoint the cause(s) of your anger, the better able you’ll be to find solutions. Is it a symptom? Some aspect of an important relationship? An activity you can no longer do the way you used to do it? Whatever it is, giving it a name is the first step to addressing it.
Once you’ve identified the source(s) of your anger you can formulate a step-by-step plan to improve the situation. It helps to write the steps out and check them off as you accomplish them. You might consider:
If you begin to feel that your anger is more destructive than constructive, it’s time to reach out for help and support. Perhaps you’re taking your anger out on family members, friends, or colleagues – talking or behaving in ways that don’t feel like you. Or maybe you’re lashing out at strangers on the street or drivers in other cars. You may even be targeting yourself with some of that anger – battering yourself with negative self-talk and harsh criticism. This type of anger isn’t about being a bad or mean person; it’s about feeling overwhelmed. It’s a signal that it’s time to ask your MS provider or primary care provider for a referral to a mental health professional who can help you find some more comfortable strategies for managing your anger.
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