According to the field of mental health, anger doesn’t get “stored” in the body.
Because anger isn’t a tangible thing.
Since anger doesn’t store, there are no negative consequences for not expressing it.
Because it’s not possible to let it “build up” to “toxic” levels.
So you’re supposed manage your anger, instead of express it.
But anger can build up to toxic levels, or at least the ingredients that lead up to it can.
How anger is created in the body
In the introduction to his book, Uses of Emotion: Nature’s Vital Gift, Psychologist Kenneth S. Isaacs argues against the notion of emotions being stored in the body.
He explains that emotion is merely a “nerve-mediated mental process,” whereby:
“[T]he sensory data transmitted to the central nervous system and the message of response speedily move as electrical impulses along nerve fiber in pulsing action and then subside.”
He believes that because the nerve impulses of emotion come and go (which is true for various central nervous system mechanisms), once an emotion is experienced, it is gone from the body.
And then, only thought processes and memories that can evoke similar emotional responses remain. According to Isaacs, these similar responses are not to be mistaken as the original emotional event.
Anger gets stored in an indirect way
Isaacs is not entirely arguing against the notion of emotion being stored in the body.
When the thought processes and memories that evoke similar emotional responses remain — they are essentially stored in the brain in subconscious cognitive networks.
Meaning that under the right circumstances, when those cognitive networks are activated in the same way, the same type of angry response will be triggered once again.
From an outside observer, it looks like the anger never really went away. It was just stored until a later time when it had reason to come back out.
What’s happening is that the cognitive precursors of that anger never went away.
They were just stored until a later time when an environmental trigger reactivated the “angry” circuit.
Anger gets stored in the form of unresolved thought processes
When a person gets angry, they have certain thoughts that have a certain meaning — their angry feeling is a natural conclusion to that meaning.
Thought: He’s not talking to me after I refused to lend him twenty bucks.
Meaning: He’s not talking to me because he doesn’t like me anymore because I refused to lend him twenty bucks.
Meaning Expressed as Feeling (Emotional Reaction): How dare he base our friendship on how much money I lend him!
Whether or not the thought processes are accurate or functional is beside the point.
The point is that as long as they go unaddressed — and remain subconscious — the angry circuit will trigger every time a similar situation occurs.
So anger about a particular type of incident will keep coming up again and again if you never resolve to work with the cognitive precursors to that anger.
And as long as you ignore this huge part of the puzzle, anger will essentially store, until the next time you get triggered.
Let’s look at another example.
How anger gets stored in Johnny’s body
Johnny never confronts Sally about stepping over his personal boundaries on the playground. She bumps into him, orders him around, and cuts him in the line for the twisty slide.
Every time they’re both on the playground, Johnny gets really mad. So mad that he starts throwing tanbark at the other children.
The principal thinks Johnny’s just got a lot of anger inside of him. That he’s a troubled kid who has it rough at home, and takes out his aggression on the playground.
But Johnny’s (and Sally’s) teacher knows that due to their unique dynamic, Sally gets him upset often, and even enjoys doing it. She does the same thing in class, but not as much because she knows she’s being watched more closely.
From Johnny’s teacher’s point of view, it’s not that Johnny has stored anger, it’s that he doesn’t yet have the cognitive and behavioral resources to confront Sally when she tries to walk all over him. He doesn’t yet know how to set his boundaries with her.
The result of her violating his boundaries is that he immediately experiences the warning signal of danger, or anger. Because letting someone walk all over you is dangerous to your health and well-being.
Johnny’s teacher might explain the situation to the principal in this way: “Well, Johnny’s angry because of the way that Sally treats him. Since he never deals with that anger or responds to the situation in a different way — the anger never goes away. That’s why he’s angry all the time — the anger is stored in him in an indirect way. He doesn’t know how to deal with Sally and he sees her everyday.”
If Johnny’s lucky enough to go to a school where emotional intelligence is a core component of the curriculum, then Johnny’s teacher would likely step in and give Johnny a chance to recognize his feelings and why they are being triggered in such a way.
Pitfalls to anger-gets-stored-in-the-body thinking
Overtly, the field of mental health declares that negative emotions like anger don’t get stored in the body.
Covertly, the field of mental health treats these emotions as if they do get stored, and dangerously so.
Which leads to a general phobia of experiencing and expressing negative emotion.
Isaacs comments on how various branches of mental health have caused more damage than good by subscribing to the emotions-stored-in-the-body model:
“Universally we have taught people that emotions, or at least some of them, are big events that unfortunately are disruptive, interfering, and destructively dangerous. Therefore most people seem to believe that at least some emotions must be contended with, ejected, controlled, managed, tolerated, modulated, or suppressed.”
This is why most aims of therapy and self-help are to shift you away from the negative emotions so that you can bask in the positive ones. Negative emotions aren’t handled with enough maturity, and aren’t highly regarded as valuable tools you can work with.
When you view emotions as invaders of the body, it’s easy to regard them as the enemy. It’s also easy to see them as having no value, which in itself is very dangerous and polarizing thinking.
Of course, this view is just the covert one that you have to pay close attention to in order to notice, as the field of mental health overtly takes the opposite stance.
Pitfalls to anger-doesn’t-get-stored-in-the-body thinking
The website for the PBS three-part series, This Emotional Life, sums it up this overt stance nicely:
“Venting is the worst way to manage anger; a better strategy is allowing yourself to calm down, such as by counting to 10 or taking deep breaths”
(You can read my reviews on This Emotional Life here.)
According to this perspective, you don’t have to worry about anger storing up in the body because it doesn’t work that way.
Instead, it can be redirected, or calmly breathed through.
The anger-doesn’t-get-stored-in-the-body perspective makes it really easy for people to get lazy with their emotional hygiene.
Why you need to know how anger gets stored in the body
The extent to which emotions are physically stored in the body remains to be further explored by science, but we do know that memories and thoughts underpin emotional reactions — and that they can remain unchanged, or “stored” in subconscious cognitive networks.
When those memories and thoughts remain unaltered (as do their emotional counterparts), you cannot assess them at a conscious-thought level and therefore you cannot reprogram them with long-term success.
Meaning, you can’t change your response to a situation and stop getting so angrily triggered by it.
The link between anger and compassion
If you view undesirable emotions simply as links to the thinking behind them, then you can create a roadmap for effectively transmuting a mindset of blame (which naturally leads to anger) to one of gratitude (which naturally leads to compassion).
The epitome of working constructively with your anger is removing yourself from the victim mindset, reestablishing your power in a balanced way, and viewing your former adversary through eyes of compassion.
Because compassion is the ultimate emotional resilience.
Compassion is a by-product of the transmutation of anger into response ability.
But having “compassion” for your adversaries is mostly misunderstood, because it’s main ingredient — anger — is horribly misunderstood. As we’ve just seen, the field of mental health has cognitive dissonance about the value of anger.
And then there are the typical paths to compassion that love to skip over the anger and onto the good stuff.
What do you think?
Do you find it helpful to regard anger as something that can be stored in your body?
Or do you prefer not to view anger in this way?
Is there anything would you like to see explored further on the topic of anger? And its relationship to compassion?
Feel free to share your thoughts, questions, or feelings, in the comments below.