Suppressed Anger enhances pain perception?


Today in Psychopathology we will be discussing the problem of problem anger. In doing some additional research I found that there has been a fair amount of literature produced on the topic of angry emotions and a good amount in the last year or so.

We know that chronic anger has significant impact on the body and may influence certain disease states such as high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, etc. But, Quartana & Burns (Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine & Science, Chicago) investigated the relationship between anger suppression and increased pain sensitivity. Here’s how they explore the possible connection:

1. They asked 209 healthy and pain-free college students to perform a mental arithmetic task (serial sevens). While doing the task, some were harassed (made angry) and some were told to express their feelings, to suppress their experience and/or expression of their feelings, etc.

2. After the task, they had to put their non-dominant hand into a bucket of ice until they reached the point where they could not tolerate pain any further.

What did they find? Well, first they found that 32% kept their hand in the water so long as to be not helpful in their research. But, they also found that, “Participants who attempted to suppress either experiential or expressive aspects of emotion during anger provocation reported greater pain in response to subsequent pain induction than did participants who suppressed during anxiety induction and those instructed not to suppress, irrespective of emotion-induction condition.” They also found, “Participants who suppressed anger not only reported the greatest pain severity, but also described the quality of the pain as more physically hurtful (e.g., throbbing) than their counterparts who suppressed anxiety or those who experienced angerbut did not engage in effortful suppression. More important, those who suppressed anger also described their pain as annoying and irritating to a greater extent than those who suppressed anxiety.”

This makes sense. When I’m angry, everything becomes an irritant.

Does this suggest that to be more healthy we should be more free with our anger by giving vent to it? Not necessarily so. It does mean that those who hold it in (become embittered?) may become quite sensitive to perceptions of pain–that is, notice all the other things wrong with the world. But anger expression isn’t necessarily the opposite of suppression. Rather, honest self-evaluation, bringing our anger to the Lord, remembering that He is our vindicator may be more important than outward expressions of our anger.

Biblio: Emotion, 7:2, pp 400-414 (2007).

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Filed under anger, counseling science

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