According to society, anger rarely pays. That’s partly true, but the unfortunate omission according to what is socially acceptable is the difference between the type of anger that leads us to spiraling out of control, and that which has a positive role in not only our individual growth, but the entire world’s. Constructive anger can aid intimate relationships, work interactions and social expressions, including many types of responses that can change humanity.
“Don’t you dare raise your voice in this house,” says just about every parent in the modern world. Although anger directed at another human being can be hurtful and detrimental to our health, outward expressions of anger fueled to exercise or simply distress may help protect us from heart disease and stroke. Men with moderate levels of anger expression are less likely to have a stroke than those who rarely expressed anger.
We all know very bitter and angry people. We often judge them in ways that represent our own convictions relating to aggression and violence. But anger is not necessarily associated with either of those. In fact, anger seems to be followed by aggression only about 10 percent of the time, and lots of aggression occurs without any anger at all.
Yes, when not properly expressed, anger can come out “inappropriately” in the form of road rage, hurtful humor, procrastination, illness, memory loss, chronic lateness, gossip, depression, or violence.
Anger is a Beneficial Healthy Emotion
However, a number of studies show that in the places where anger is usually played out–especially on the domestic front–it is often beneficial. “When you look at everyday episodes of anger as opposed to more dramatic ones, the results are usually positive,” says James Averill, PhD, a University of Massachusetts Amherst psychologist whose studies of everyday anger in the 1980s found that angry episodes helped strengthen relationships about half the time, according to a community sample.
In its purest sense, anger is a normal, healthy emotion. It is a warning signal that something is wrong. It can alert an individual of the potential for physical or psychological trauma.
Anger is also a mixture of both emotional and physical changes. A big surge of energy goes through your body as chemicals, such as adrenaline, are released. The emotion can provide the energy to resist emotional or physical threats, allowing defense or escape. It can aid in our awareness of emotional or physical boundaries and help individuals set healthy limits. Anger can also mobilize us to make much-needed changes in our world when we are faced with injustices.
The difference is not the levels of anger, but the styles of coping with anger. Sarcastic remarks to others, slamming doors, or arguing with others will only increase stress. However, outward expressions which are controlled can release tension and decrease cortisol levels responsible for inflammation and pain. It’s one of the reasons very angry people who exercise are able to control the emotion. Anger can ultimately motivate us to take action and remedy situations that are wrong. The key is figuring out how to appropriately channel our anger.
The concept of constructive anger is also gaining empirical support from a recently validated measure developed by Mount Sinai Medical Center psychologist Karina Davidson, PhD, and colleagues. Described in an issue of Health Psychology (2000., Vol. 19, No. 1), the instrument explores factors like people’s propensity to calmly discuss their angry feelings and to work toward solutions. Indeed, use of the scale with male heart patients high in hostility suggests that constructive anger may have health benefits as well.
A 2002 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology (Vol. 58, No. 12) by Tafrate, Kassinove and Louis Dundin, found that 40 percent of a community sample of 93 people reported positive long-term effects of angry episodes, compared with 36 percent that reported neutral and 25 percent that reported negative long-term outcomes.
Similarly, a 1997 study by Kassinove and colleagues in the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality (Vol. 12, No. 2) found that 55 percent of a comparative community sample of Russians and Americans said an angry episode produced a positive outcome. Almost a third of them noted the episode helped them see their own faults.
“People who are targets of anger in these studies will say things like, ‘I really understand the other person much better now–I guess I wasn’t listening before,'” comments Kassinove. “While assertive expression is always preferable to angry expression, anger may serve an important alerting function that leads to deeper understanding of the other person and the problem.”
The ability to identify and distinguish between negative emotions helps us address the problem that led to those emotions in the first place. But while some people can tell the difference between feeling angry and guilty, others may not be able to separate the two. Distinguishing between anger and frustration is even harder.
Positive Feedback Loop
Several factors can make the difference between constructive and destructive anger, say psychologists who study and treat everyday anger. For one, constructive anger expression usually involves both people, not just the angry party. In the best-case scenario, the angry person expresses his or her anger to the target, and the target hears the person and reacts appropriately.
There is an intriguing relationship between suggestion, cognition, and behavior. Psychological science’s most intriguing findings may be driven, at least in part, by suggestion and expectations. When something violates our expectations or blocks our goals, then we get angry. Some of these goals and expectations are personal — we expect to get ahead with hard work, and we expect our significant others not to forget our birthdays. Some of these expectations are shaped by societal standards; we expect everyone to wait in line for their turn with a bank teller.
We build these expectations in our heads of what other people should do, how they should act, what their lives should be like and how they should behave, but it’s not real…it’s all in our minds, and when we let our minds and ego get the best of us, we often become disappointed and angry when those fantasies clash with reality.
Likewise, it is helpful to understand that anger is contextual and social. When anger fails to fill a constructive framework, however, it can morph into undesirable expressions of the emotion, anger experts say. Anger externalized can turn into violence and aggression; anger internalized can cause depression, health problems and communication difficulties, they note.
Take the following steps to help control your anger:
- Try finding the source of your anger, and learning to adapt to why this is making you angry in the first place.
- Try to stop expecting people to meet your approval and appreciate them for who they are rather than who you want them to be.
- Physical release. Trying a non-contact competitive sport.
- Learning relaxation or meditation.
- Move your feelings out through writing. Writing down your emotions–without judging them–is one of the quickest ways to become aware of what’s going on inside you.
- Share your anger – Another way to mindfully explore and express your anger and other feelings generated in upsetting incidents is to share them with another person.
- Find a new truth – The idea is to find a new truth for yourself; a message that will offset and replace the limiting belief–the old truth–that you developed. Hearing that message now, even so many years later, can be an extremely liberating experience.
Originally featured on Prevent Disease by Josh Richardson.