By Heart
By Heart Blog
Anguish, anger and anxiety
A surprise clue to transcending our human suffering
May these musings of a Word Lover bring you succour, if you need or want it.
I was looking for a short phrase that could describe and embrace human suffering in just a few syllables.

In my work, this is not an idle task. I sit (and occasionally dance) with people as they experience and express their pain, past and present, and their concerns and misgivings about the future. I do this because expressing and experiencing with skilful guidance can transmute our anguish, anger and anxiety into peace, clarity and purpose.
Feeling truly heard, deeply received and
acknowledged can be life-changing.
So I was looking to distil a phrase that would acknowledge the broadest spectrum of suffering, not just at a personal level, but what we pass from generation to generation, the suffering that is in our collective inheritance.

It struck me that 'anger and anguish' covered a lot of ground. These two play out in politics, economics, health, family, you name it. Rolling them around on my tongue, I got intrigued by the similar start that the two words share. So I looked up their etymology (my fascination with the history of words was seeded by my Granddad, who would answer questions about the meaning of a word I'd come across with a mini-discourse on its history and composition).

Etymology concerns itself with the history and origins of words, as far as we can trace them. I frequently find an illuminating insight, an extra ray of light onto the meaning of a word in its etymology, especially when a dictionary definition feels vague or insufficient in some way. I give Granddad a mental wink when that happens.
The online search for 'anger anguish etymology' took me further than I'd expected. states that the two words (and a few others) share a common ancestor, the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root 'angh-' which means 'tight, painfully constricted, painful'.

This common ancestor also forms all or part of: angina, angst, anxious, hangnail and quinsy. All these words are talking about a constriction, a tightness.

Here is the entry for 'anguish' (n.)
C. 1200, "acute bodily or mental suffering," from Old French anguisse, angoisse "choking sensation, distress, anxiety, rage" (12C), from Latin angustia "tightness, straitness, narrowness," figuratively "distress, difficulty," from ang(u)ere "to throttle, torment" (from PIE root 'angh-' "tight, painfully constricted, painful").
Feeling into this, I contemplated how the torment we feel throttling us comes in response to encountering restrictions, 'narrowness', a denial. There seemed to be a core of truth in this cluster of words beyond strict modern standards of word definition.

'Anguish and anger' turned out to have an extra gift for me: the two words provide an integrated description of the physical, mental and emotional *movement* of tightening, narrowing, pulling in that we often experience as suffering.

In doing that, they also point to a remedy. Remember I said earlier that experiencing and expressing had the potential to transmute our suffering. 'Anguish and anger', the tightening in the chest and in our mental horizons, are subject to change. I found a mirror phrase that describes the other end of the spectrum:
Anguish, anger and anxiety
Tight, narrow, constricted
Experience, express, expand
Spacious, connected, integrated
The cluster on the right also have something in common: the 'ex-' prefix which points outward, the complementary to the inward tightening of 'angh-'.

There is something else extra-helpful about the phrase on the right: these are all verbs, words that describe action. Action is *something you can do*. You don't have to be born with it, you can learn it and practice it. If you can find ways to experience, express and expand beyond the constriction of your current suffering, the tightness will relax and your horizons will open up to reveal new possibilities.
Simple & not easy
You may be feeling like saying at this point: "Thanks, Margarita, that's great. Any tips on how I can 'experience, express and expand'?"

I hear you. The suggestion is simple to name, yet that does not mean it is easy to implement. If it were easy, I suspect we would all have got it sorted long ago, instead of passing on our anguish, stewing in our anger and churning in our anxieties.

I went into training in coaching and counselling skills precisely because I felt the world could do with one more person with the skills to help themselves and others expand beyond their personal and inherited anguish.
A few starter-point suggestions
Find good company
You may have someone next to you with the willingness and insight to accompany you in the effort to expand. Compassionate and warm human contact is a marvel, and at times a miracle-worker.
Make the gesture - feel the changes
This popular TED talk describes how making the physical gestures of expanding affects your internal chemistry and emotional state.
TED talk: Your body language may shape who you are | Amy Cuddy
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) technique
One technique I personally find helpful is to channel the tightening into one area of the body, e.g. by clasping your hands together or really scrunching up your feet for a few seconds. The full technique is more complex, but the simplest version is already surprising effective.

Try it for yourself: press your hands together tightly, and sooner than 10 seconds later you will likely find your breath coming easier and the rest of your body relaxing.
It would be trivialising the challenges people face to pretend that there are easy fixes. If you are looking for a silver bullet, the monster within that you would slay may be the very ally you need to discover. Check out my post 'Every dragon is a keeper of treasure' for more on 'the monster within'.
Here's wishing you a wide world abundant in generosity

Margarita Steinberg is a Leadership Coach with a specialism in Psychosynthesis psychology. She is also a qualified teacher.

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