The Energy in Anger

"I realized that if my thoughts immediately affect my body, I should be careful about what I think. Now if I get angry, I ask myself why I feel that way. If I can find the source of my anger, I can turn that negative energy into something positive." - Yoko Ono


Stress is a symptom of many things, but the essential cause is always the same. When you understand the patterns that generate stress, you can see its potential, and you will have the power to transform it into useful energy.

You may connect your stress to bad planning, limited resources, fear, prejudice, personality conflicts, unreasonable expectations—these are only a few of the situations that set the stage for distress. You probably have your own list. I know I do. Royce and Mary shared their personal patterns of stress in recent blog posts, and their stories have resonated with others. As diverse as our stories are, they emerge from the same underlying dynamics. 

Thank goodness, we also experience eustress. That is stress that you perceive as pleasant or as a precursor to something you expect to be pleasant. Healthy exercise, delight in someone’s company, anticipation of a holiday, musical dissonance and resolution, a good joke—these are examples of stress that can feel good to you and can be good for you. These, too, emerge from the same underlying dynamical pattern.

So what?

When you look beyond the symptoms and begin to explore the dynamics of stress, you find something quite strange. The dynamics of eustress and distress are identical. Your expectations lead you to perceive them as different, and your situation makes them more or less productive. Still, the underlying condition for both kinds of stress is the same. They result from potential energy that is stored as tension in your system. Tension in your physical system can feel like the burn of a good workout or the pain of swollen joints. Emotional tension may bring a laugh or a tear. Mental tension is both the cloud of confusion and the delight of insight. And, that’s not all. Social tension can bring celebration or violence; bias or welcome; competition or collaboration. In all of these cases, the good and the bad, stress emerges from tension.

For centuries, these deep systemic dynamics have held the secret of good storytelling. We have all delighted in the romantic comedy trick that begins with hatred in the first five minutes and ends with a kiss in the closing credits. That is because effective storytellers recognize and release the tension that is stored within and between the characters they have created. We enjoy the show because we store the same tensions in ourselves. Some we experience as distress. Others we recognize as eustress, but fundamentally tension lies at the core of both tragedy and comedy.  

Looking even deeper, we can see that tension is the product of engaged difference. Differences and engagement can exist in any human system, including physical, mental, spiritual, economic, professional, or social. Whatever the context, both difference and engagement are required for tension to emerge. Things can be the same, and no tension appears. No stress is experienced. No energy is present. This is the state that scientists call “entropy.” When difference is introduced or acknowledged, tension can emerge, and you experience stress. If the difference is beneficial, the tension generates eustress. If the difference is detrimental, the tension feels like distress. Difference is one necessary condition and connection is the other—system boundaries are the third, but we aren’t talking about the CDE Model today.

A lack of tension can also result from things that are different but disengaged. We call this “uncoupling.” A powerful example is part of urban life. As long as you don’t look a homeless person in the eye, you don’t fully experience the tension between the two of you or the discomfort within yourself. Your encounter will generate little energy for you or for them. If that person is a friend, then engaging the difference will bring the delight of eustress.

Both difference and connection are required for you to harvest the energy that is stored in the tension you feel as stress. No connection or no difference, no tension. No tension, no stress. No stress no energy. This chain of complex and unpredictable causation sets conditions for the stress you feel—whether good or bad.

Now what?

Stress doesn’t have to suck your energy and leave you exhausted. You can choose, instead, to find and use the energy that is hidden in the dynamics of your stress. You can get to know the tension you feel. You can explore the differences that set the stage for the tension. You can uncover the differences that make a difference to you in the here and now. You can see them as a source of potential energy. You can practice engaging across those differences in ways that release positive, generative energy.  

One kind of engagement always connects across differences, transforms tension, and generates constructive energy. We call it inquiry. When you have uncovered the differences that are your source of stress, you have the opportunity to frame a question that will release the energy trapped in the tension. A good, authentic, open question is like a wire connecting two poles of a battery. When the differences are connected, energy flows, and work gets done. 

You have a choice. You can use inquiry within yourself to wake up to your emotional, mental, or social stress. When you are awake, you can use inquiry with others to convert your stress into energy that restores you and invigorates those around you.

That is what Yoko Ono sees for herself. She chose inquiry to convert the energy of her anger into pure, creative energy. You can do the same thing. I know you can because I have. It is not easy. I know because I don’t do it all the time. Most important, though, I know my next cycle of Adaptive Action will give me another chance to harvest the energy in stressful patterns. It is a life-long practice, but it is infinitely better than living in distress.

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