I want to get angry more often. I don’t want to yell at people or seethe with resentment, but I do need to tell people "No" when they ask me for things I don’t want to give. I need to ask people to move when they’re in my way. I need to stop being so nice. Suppressing my anger is not doing my multiple sclerosis (MS) any good.
In his book The Myth of Normal, Dr. Gabor Maté cites many studies showing people rated as “nice” by health care providers (meaning they don’t show annoyance or anger) have more cancer and more immune diseases (like MS). People who never got angry, patients whom everybody liked, got sick more often and died sooner. Why should this be?
I look at it this way. If I don’t set limits, if I don’t protect myself, why should my body be any different? I imagine immune systems have a tough job. If a person doesn’t get adequate rest, food, peace, or pleasure, if we don’t value ourselves, why should immune cells get out there and fight for us?
It can’t be healthy to look out for everyone else before I look out for me. I remember once I was in a store with my MS friend Alice. We were using our walkers. She needed to go to the bathroom badly and I asked the store manager if she could use theirs. He said no; it was for staff only. Alice could go across the street to a police station and use theirs.
It was a big street, a long way to walk for her, and I got angry with him. I loudly said the station was too far away. Alice could fall, she could wet herself. The store might get a 1-star review on Yelp. I demanded access for her, and he backed down. Alice was grateful, but I said, “You would have done the same for me. But neither one of us would have done it for ourselves.” We both laughed, because we knew it was true.
That’s the way a lot of MS people are. We’re good at helping others. We’re good at accepting, adapting, getting along, but not so good at protecting ourselves, which is what anger is for.
You might say I’m talking about assertiveness, not anger. But to me, the only difference between them is in how we express it. Screaming at people or hitting them is called ‘anger,’ and might land you in a court-ordered anger management program. Speaking firmly and forcefully, doing what you think is right is called assertiveness, but I think both behaviors come from the same motive, to protect ourselves and those we love. If we don’t do either, our bodies will pay a price.
I don’t see any sense in being angry with MS. The disease is just our bodies’ way of trying to cope with too much stress and not enough support. But it does make all kinds of sense to get angry with people or institutions that make our lives or the lives of our loved ones harder.
When I asked the WebMD MS Community if they ever got angry, I got over 50 responses. Some people said ‘all the time,’ others said they prayed and remembered their blessings when they felt anger coming on. Most said they tried hard not to show anger. Why is anger so difficult?
Why Anger Is Hard
Right now, I’m in psychotherapy, and I’m studying Dr. Mate’s book. He says healthy anger is a kind of boundary-setting: ‘No, I will not let you push me around.’ It’s not long-lasting; you use it to protect yourself; then put it down.
As a young child, I could scream with the best of them, but I lost the ability at a very early age. Dr. Maté says this loss usually happens through trauma. Child raising practices in the West are traumatizing – think taking newborns away from their mother and putting them alone in an incubator. We lose confidence to speak up for ourselves before we can speak at all.
In my case, I think my parents really loved me, but they were highly stressed and needed comfort. I somehow decided my own needs were less important. I learned that anger wasn’t safe. It got me in trouble; it upset my caregivers. It now feels easier and safer to avoid expressing anger. People seem to like me better; they don’t hit me.
I have learned to fear anger -- other people’s as well as my own. I avoid being around it. I try to calm people down when they’re upset. I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, unless it involves sacrificing my own needs to make them feel better.
Your story may be different, but I’ll bet most readers find self-defense difficult. Most of us have been traumatized, and our response to our trauma influences how our immune systems work.
Health Benefits of Anger
Being angry can cause harm. It raises blood pressure; it may provoke violence. But did you know anger also releases adrenalin, which makes us feel more alive and able to accomplish more? It produces dopamine and serotonin, which raise our mood and reduce our anxiety. Anger reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol, too much of which causes all kinds of problems.
Anger is healthier than chronic sadness, healthier than worrying. It reduces inflammation, and MS is an inflammatory disease. Since I have started trying to express anger more easily, I have noticed that when I do, I feel better for hours. I don’t know about the long-term effects on my MS yet.
Doing Anger Right
I think the bottom line is, if we don’t get angry with others when they are hurting us, the anger doesn’t go away. Where does it go? If we don’t process it some other way, we turn it on ourselves.
We have to learn to speak up for what we need and want. Long-term unexpressed anger causes all kinds of harm in our bodies and our relationships. Simmering anger is called resentment, and it is a killer, “like taking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Anger should be expressed, acted on, and let go.
Sometimes, the ones doing us wrong are too powerful or too far away to safely reach with our anger. This is a major reason people who are poor or from groups who experience discrimination have much worse health. They are denied expression of their righteous anger.
We might have to be creative in actions we take and realize we might not see any results any time soon. Even a strongly-worded letter might make us feel better. (Customer reviews are good for that.)
Sometimes we can find other ways to process our anger. Exercise, physical contact, and doing pleasurable things will help our bodies produce endorphins, dopamine, and the other feel-good hormones such as serotonin. Those things may help us deal with anger we cannot safely express. Meditation and prayer might help too. But chronically stifling our anger means leaving ourselves defenseless against the world. I don’t mean be a jerk, but my goal is to not always be the one who gets out of the way. Other people can do that, too.
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