Improve Your Distress Tolerance to Better Manage Anger, Shame Maginging distressing emotions requires awareness, tolerance and eventually release

Most of us have grown up being shamed for expressing anger.  With such an upbringing we learn to repress our anger and internalize the shame about our feelings. We are unable to manage or tolerate distressing feelings in ourselves and in others. Most of the intolerance we see in society and in the political realm is due to our childhood experience of intolerance and repression. As adults, we keep lashing to our kids and those who cannot retaliate, react passive-aggressively, become social media trolls, or worse mass shooters.

After years and years of stuffing my anger, in the hope of winning the nice girl medal; I realized a bit too late that turning the other cheek was damaging my mental and physical health. Growing up in a severely dysfunctional environment post-my mother’s death, even the thought of being angry always triggered the meta-emotion of shame.

My distress tolerance levels at managing anger were viscerally conflicting. It always led to initial freezing and then self-hatred and eventually to deep shame. It was bad to feel like this. Being a good Christian meant always being forgiving even when one has been hurt. And worse you have to forgive not one time but 70 x 7 times. What a crap of bullshit. (One of the reasons why I’m no longer a practicing Christian).

To Manage Anger and Shame, Improve Your Distress Tolerance
Handling distressing emotions like anger and shame is critical to our well-being

Unfortunately, this faulty thinking pattern got wired into my brain. Breaking free of this program has been one uphill task – but it has been liberating and healing.

The first was understanding that…

Anger Is Not Bad – It Is Protective Energy

Anger is essential for our survival. It is a primal and self-protective emotion. Anger is a biological response to feeling some form of threat or injustice directed at us.

When children are allowed to express anger and have the occasional tantrums it leads to the healthy development of their psyche.

However, most of us are raised in environments where we aren’t allowed to air out our grievances, protect our boundaries, or demand for what we need. And when we try to express our anger we are shamed and told to shut up. When this,  high emotional energy is blocked from proper expression it leads to resentment hate, rage, and eventually dis-ease.

Repressing Anger Causes Illness

Culturally, it is deemed unacceptable to get angry. Being stoic and calm is lauded. Going against our innate biological make-up causes our nervous system to revolt.

Gabor Maté explains in his book When The Body Says No:

People diagnosed with cancer or autoimmune disease, with chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia, or with potentially debilitating neurological conditions, are often enjoined to relax, to think positively, to lower their stress levels. All that is good advice, but impossible to carry out if one of the major sources is not clearly identified and dealt with: the internalization of anger.

Further, Maté, in his tongue-in-cheek humor quotes the line from the film, Manhattan, “I never get angry, I grow a tumor instead.”

Also, most depression is internalized anger.

No wonder my mother got breast cancer having to repress her anger towards my violent father. And I developed scoliosis.  Studies are proving, that repressing strong emotions like anger is bad for our emotional and physical health.

My Repressed Anger

I did not realize how much pent up anger I still harbor till recently. On one of my favorite Facebook pages, the moderator praised Prince Harry and Meghan Markle as admirable advocates of mental. In my opinion, both Prince Harry and his fame-hungry wife only care about themselves.

However, the rage I felt when reading it was uncalled for. While doing some EFT tapping to calm me, I felt my repressed anger towards an ingrate cousin who I cared for when her career-mad mother just dumped them onto my grandmother bubbling to the surface.

Pitfalls of Being A Good Christian

I had felt sorry for this helpless one-year-old and her 2-year old brother then. Even though I was a grieving  12-year-old struggling to cope with the loss of my mother. And additionally dealing with an abusive father and so many stresses. Though my own life force was at its nadir, I suppressed my own needs and feeling to take care of these two kids whose father was mean towards me. It took a lot of emotional energy  to be good to those kids,

I had the mistaken belief that being a good Christian will save my soul. Most religions fail to address the mind and body as the key to our souls.  I also had this mistaken belief I would be rewarded but all I got was a lack of gratitude and contempt when these brats grew up and one became a model. I was not good enough for her. Furthermore, having scoliosis only added to my shame-filled rage.

Those memories made me aware of the level of distress those feelings of anger triggered within me. Learning how to deal with anger and the shame we were programmed to feel requires awareness, tolerance, and eventually release.

Distress Tolerance

As an abused and neglected child, I had to suppress the self-protective feelings of anger, this prematurely blocked my fight/flight responses – freeze-fawn was the best survival strategy. But as I am getting stronger not just emotionally but in all levels of my life, I feel my fight responses coming back online which felt good but also overwhelming, unfamiliar, and scary.

According to, trauma therapists, anger that is associated with trauma is a sign of healing. The buried feelings are unfreezing in our unconscious. It indicates one’s sense of self that had to cower and hide is coming online. However, for this process to move to integration one has to be able to understand and accept that feeling distress is part of the healing process.

It is distressing to stay with the feelings of the thought of possible rejection, ridicule, criticism, or possible abuse. It is critical to my healing and growth to improve my distress tolerance ability in order to deal with the feelings and sensations that come up. Rather than trying to avoid them, get rid of them, or overthinking them.

Feeling the Feelings

The key to handling distressing emotions is being present without judgment, Let the painful felt bodily experience move through. Don’t try to suppress, distract, or analyze. Not allowing the process will keep you stuck in your earlier way of reacting or non-reacting which is not good for your healing.

I have had to learn to not cover up my discomfort with fake laughter which sends a wrong message to people.

It takes a change in thinking about feeling and some practice to let ourselves feel again.

It means pausing and noticing both emotional pain and the accompanying physical sensations. Staying with the experience and expressing myself instead of continuing the old habit of blocking out things and pretending to be tough requires a concerted effort on my part.

Slowly Releasing Trauma

According to Nervous System Expert, Irene Lyon, becoming aware of our body sensations is critical to our healing from trauma. She further elaborates how when our bodies and minds go into shutdown,

 a massive container of survival energy, wanting and waiting to be released. We must tap into this carefully and skillfully so that a person can access that livelihood again. Without it they’ll continue to be low in energy, boundaries will be difficult to set, and self-sabotage will continue. The other consequence of these insidious threats and non-completion of the fight and flee responses as a kid, is a chronic illness: physical and/or mental.

Only after,  you get through the crisis and calm down, then you can get to the part of emotion regulation and expanding your window of tolerance.

Emotional Regulation

Of course, the best way to get back to our emotional baseline is through the ventral vagal system of co-regulation. Connecting and expressing our feelings to someone supportive.  If that option is not there listen to healing music or uplifting podcasts and youtube videos, my current fave is Daniel Mackler and Irene Lyon. It changes as per my needs.

Go for a walk or indulge in some physical activity, taking a warm bath, cooking, cleaning, gardening (any activity that requires hand-eye coordination) self-massage, self-talk, EFT, etc. Alternately, you could watch some funny stuff – Jeff Dunham, the ventriloquist has some really hilarious videos with his puppets.

I won’t discuss other therapies like DBT, CBT, or the myriad therapies available because I don’t know or experienced them.

Changing our habitual behavioral patterns requires awareness and repetitive practice.

Three Ancient But  Simple Techniques To Calm Your Nervous System

In this  Youtube video, Irene Lyon shows how to easily calm our mind-body with a simple Jin Shin Jyutsu technique. The exercise was described by  Dr. Peter A. Levine in his book In An Unspoken Voice. Jin Shin Jyutsu is an ancient Japanese physio-emotional practice that uses gentle hand touch on different areas of the body to restore harmony and balance.

Another helpful Jin Shin Jyutsu technique is simply holding the middle finger, ‘the harmonizer’.

Or press on Liver 14 acupressure point called  Gate of Hope located between the 6th and 7th ribs, just below the nipple line. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Liver is the organ responsible for the smooth flow of emotions. I have found pressing this point particularly helpful.

Hold the point with steady pressure for 2 to 3 minutes or until you feel the Qi moving freely. If the point is really stuck, try holding it in combination with Lung 1 which is located is located on the chest, level with the space between the first and second ribs.

By using new healthy skills you are creating new neuronal pathways in your brain. The key to neuroplastic change is the repetition of new and better coping strategies.

Anger As Medicine || Why anger is healing || Irene Lyon

Righteous Anger and Shifting Shame Where It Belongs

Healing means becoming more authentic and in tune with our feelings. I realize that feeling angry when one has been hurt and betrayed is perfectly alright. My toxic internalized shame has changed to disgust.   It is the people who wrong me who need to be ashamed, not me.

Moreover, awareness about my anger and resentment without feeling shameful has led to new insights and psychological shifts.

Paying attention to even the littlest stirrings of irritation can help avoid later catastrophes.  Being triggered by someone or something in person or social media to telling me something vital. Maybe I have some unfinished trauma that needs working on.

Or that the person’s value system is not the same as mine. Which is fine as long as I am not getting into any close partnership with that person – business or personal.

Owning my anger, learning to listen, and managing it will be a lifelong process.

No doubt, managing emotions like anger can be tough Nonetheless, understand that they are there to protect and guide us – to make the right choices. Be present when you feel anger rising within you, wait, watch, listen, and then act.

Image Source: Pexels

Further Reading:

Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma Peter A. Levine  

Anger: Taming a Powerful Emotion –  Gary Chapman 

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Liesel Teversham
3 years ago

Such a well-researched and thoughtful article, Cheryl. I also discovered Jin Shin Jyutsu recently and have added it to my toolbox. There’s a marvelous book-and-cards set I’ve purchased that shows exactly what holds to use for which ailments. And yes, middle finger for anger… how perfect, right?

You have a fabulous blog with so many resources. Keep it up!