What does anger feel like in your body?
When my therapist first asked me this question, I avoided the answer. I have spent much of my life trying to hide from anger. I knew eventually I would have to learn how to relate to this emotion I had grown to associate with aggression, hatred, and even violence. Realizing how suppressing my own anger was physically detrimental, however, was what finally pushed me to answer this question.
For years I thought the debilitating headaches I had were triggered by allergies. An “allergy attack” could result in a couple of days lying in bed, unable to tolerate light, sound, or smell. Finally, I mentioned to a specialist who was treating me for chronic hives that my sinus headaches were getting worse. He asked some follow-up questions, and within a few minutes told me I was suffering from migraines. Furthermore, the way I was trying to treat them was probably making them worse.
You could have knocked me over with a tissue. From that point on, I began tracking my migraines in search of their triggers. It wasn’t long before I was able to identify several emotional antecedents in addition to the environmental and circumstantial ones. A primary contributor to my most severe symptoms—getting into a fight with someone in a way that reminded me of past traumatic incidents.
It was this understanding that led me to an Eye Movement Reprocessing and Desensitization (EMDR) specialist for the resolution of my trauma history. EMDR is a therapeutic technique that assists you with making sense out of past experiences that were too overwhelming and stressful for your mind to process at the time (To learn more about EMDR, start here.)
Entering EMDR treatment, I quickly realized my need to attend to other things that had piled up in my trauma closet prior to my being able to address the issues surrounding my fear of anger—a near death experience as a two-year-old, my young parent’s divorce when I was 5, being rescued from the YWCA’s pool. As I reprocessed each of these memories, I felt layers of misunderstood shame, self-hate, and hurt peel away revealing a new, healthier me.
When I finally came to a point where I needed to face a memory when I learned to associate anger with hatred, aggression, and violence, I had forgot that this is what had led me to EMDR in the first place. Nevertheless, when my therapist asked me what anger felt like in my body, I needed to head to my journal in private to sort through the conflicting thoughts and feelings I had.
As I turned my attention inward, asking myself to set aside my fear of anger long enough to attune to it, I noticed how anger felt like a searing sludge erupting from my heart. As it oozed out into my chest cavity, it would start to cool and solidify. As I focused my mind’s eye, I realized my anger was forming into something.
I could see waves of heat radiating off this little mass. It was glowing like embers from a fire. The energy was mesmerizing, capturing me, conforming my heartbeat to its powerful pulse. Suddenly, I realized I could relate to my anger as if it was separate, as if it was “other” than me.
I see you.
As soon as I uttered these three simple words, the lump of cooling lava revealed itself as a living, breathing, little creature curled up around my heart. Its black, scaly skin was highlighted like cooling embers from a fire burning inside it.
What was this thing I had been afraid of my whole life?
As if my third eye was adjusting to the dim lighting, I started to make out the form’s face. A thin crescent of amber pierced through the thick leathery skin to reveal an eyelid. Slowly, the inner eyelid peeled back revealing a glowing amber eye.
“Oh my god!” I said out loud, startling my little dog curled up beside me. “My anger is a baby dragon. Oh my god, I have a dragon inside of me!”
In those moments of revelation several things happened. I looked at him. He was all curled up into a ball. His black scales made him look like he was just a big black burning rock. The molten lava of his fiery belly was showing through cracks in his disguise now. His outline was coming into view as he began to uncurl.
I realized why the other parts of me were afraid of him. Looking back, each time he would reveal himself, they would have to bear the consequences. But now, I could now relate to anger in a different way, like getting to know this little dragon inside of me.
I was excited. I mean, he was kind of cute in a way. Even though he could have bitten my arm off in one chomp, his big eyes looked vaguely familiar and had a mischievous glint in them—I could be friends with my very own anger dragon!
As I started to look him over, he raised his head from his… paws? No, they were definitely claws. He shook himself and stretched like a cat waking from a nap. He gave a ferocious yawn and focused his glowing ember eyes on me. In that instant, I knew what his name was.
Then, as if he was ready for another nap, he laid down, with his back toward me. As he returned to sleep, a word that I had been given at least 19 years ago echoed in my head “My name is Lithuala.”
For me, anger is a difficult emotion. Until recently, I refused to acknowledge its presence within me. I had seen anger consume people, letting it wreak havoc across their lives whenever it wanted. I have witnessed others try run away from it. This was me, too afraid of the damage it can do, I suppressed it and suffered the psychosomatic consequences. Now, I knew a better way.
“Emotions are just information our bodies are giving us.”
I thought anger was one of the more ferocious monsters I would have to face in my Journey. It turns out, for me anyway, that when you learn there is a difference between anger and hatred, aggression, and violence, it can be a helpful companion. I look forward to learning how to befriend my own anger dragon and sharing some of the experiences we’ve had together since I’ve met him.
If you’d like to share part of your journey with me, I invite you to connect with me at: WillKoehlerLCSW@aTraumaInformedLife.com or find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn. I’m also now on Research Gate.