Recognizing Anger as an Internal Alarm Signal: A Pathway to Forgiveness


Learning to recognize and respond to our internal alarm signals—which assess every situation and inform us of appropriate reactions—helps us to let go of grudges and to forgive.

A client of mine—let's call her Lauren—noticed herself getting upset about a comment her friend had made a day or so ago. Time had passed since the comment, and rehashing their conversation did not seem to be the right solution. She believed that her friend had no intention of hurting her, yet her anger would not subside. Lauren just wanted to forgive her friend and move on, but did not know how.

Forgiveness is accepting what happened in the past and what someone did, not holding on or dwelling on it.

Forgiveness does not mean denying important feelings such as anger or sadness. In fact, in order to access forgiveness, connecting and paying attention to anger is often a necessary step. Yet people who have been abused or who had poor role models in their younger lives are often not comfortable with their own anger. Because they were taught to suppress anger rather than to express it, feelings of anger are avoided. The refusal to express anger can also be a conditioned cultural response.

Ideally, Lauren would have felt comfortable talking to her friend and expressing her feelings—if not immediately, a short time after their encounter. However, she wanted to look at her anger and her difficulty in forgiving.

Forgiveness is not an act of kindness for others; it is coming to peace with ourselves.

According to Frederic Loskin's research, holding grudges can negatively impact one's health; whereas forgiveness has beneficial health effects.

With a method called Somatic Experiencing, Lauren and I discovered that her friend's comment had triggered Lauren's childhood memories, of which danger was a reoccurring theme. She discovered that holding onto her anger was a subconscioussurvival method—an attempt to prepare her for a possible reoccurring "attack."

She noticed that her state of anger put her into fight mode, whereas forgiveness would have meant being relaxed and not ready to act. Her session with me revealed that because her alarm sensor did not indicate her hurt and anger immediately, her subconscious decided to hold on to her delayed emotions so that next time she would be ready to protect herself.

Everyone has a built-in alarm system, monitored by the limbic brain, that indicates when we might be in danger. This alarm system prepares us to react quickly with a fight, flight (escape), or freeze (shutting down feelings) response. When the situation appears to be danger-free, we rest in our base state.

Over time, our experiences form associations so that we can analyze new situations even faster. However, psychological trauma or conditioned cultural responses may result in a delayed reaction of our alarm sensor.

On the other hand, with repeated trauma, the limbic brain can also habitually overreact and perceive a threat when there is not one. For example, a combat veteran might jump into a bush when he hears a car backfire.

In the case of Lauren, she realized that she needed to recognize her internal alarm signals so that she could react in the moment.

In my next blog I'll talk about four steps you can take to recognize and work with your own internal alarm signals.

First published on Psychology Today.