You know the feeling. A rising tightness in your chest, flushed skin, claustrophobia, maybe the sense that you want to lash out or even hit something. Anger. Anger!
Whether it’s a trauma from childhood, the chaos of the world, frustration over the dubious choices of a co-worker, or fury at something hurtful your partner has said, anger is a deeply uncomfortable feeling to experience. Many of us are not taught how to deal with anger properly. In fact, anger is often demonised, treated as a “bad” emotion with no useful purpose.
Is this true? Or is there such a thing as healthy anger?
Anger in Itself Is Not Unhealthy
Anger is, according to the late psychologist Charles Spielberger PhD, who specialized in studying anger, an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage. As the American Psychological Association (APA) notes, anger can cause your heart rate and blood pressure to rise, along with a spike in adrenaline.
Anger in itself is not negative. “We are allowed to express anger because it is a natural emotion,” says Talkspace therapist Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW. Rather, it’s how we respond to feelings of anger that make it healthy or unhealthy. Chapple says anger will become uncontrollable and toxic if we keep it bottled inside.
Anger can also be a useful sign of other emotions you might be experiencing. “Anger is an indication of fear, frustration, or helplessness,” says Chapple. “Most of the time when we feel afraid or hopeless, or we believe that we’re being taken advantage of, it can turn into anger.”
The Four Types of Anger Expression
There are four ways that we typically express anger. “Three out of the four types are unhealthy manifestations: aggressive, passive-aggressive and suppressive,”. “While only one, assertive, is healthy.”
As Hammond details, examples of aggression are throwing things and hitting, passive-aggression means sulking or blaming others, and suppression might mean being resentful and denying your anger.
Being assertive, on the other hand, means confronting others kindly, conveying frustration without blaming others, and not insisting on being right.
Anger Gets A Bad Rap
Anger has a bad reputation, in part, because it’s often associated with violence. But according to the American Psychological Association, that’s a mistake.
“In fact, anger seems to be followed by aggression only about 10% of the time, and lots of aggression occurs without any anger,” said Howard Kassinove, PhD, and co-author of Anger Management: The Complete Treatment Guidebook for Practice.
People also fear anger simply because it’s uncomfortable. “Our society is told that everyone needs to be nice, and that being angry is reserved for bad people,” says Chapple. “That isn’t true: anyone can get angry.”
Anger is particularly demonised in women: you might have heard of a woman being called shrill or hysterical for expressing her outrage. Chapple says that’s especially true for Black women: “If we have any sort of emotion that is not quiet and sweet, then we come off as angry. On the other hand, [traditional] gender roles indicate that ‘angry men’ are problem-solvers and doers.”
Expressing Anger Can Be Constructive
People might fear anger, but research has shown it can often lead to good things.
James Averill, PhD, a University of Massachusetts Amherst psychologist studied everyday anger in the 1980s and found that “angry episodes helped strengthen relationships about half the time,” writes Tori DeAngelis in the APA.
A 2002 report in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that 40% of a community sample of 93 people reported positive long-term effects of angry episodes (compared with 36% reporting neutral and 25% reporting negative).
The APA also cites a 1997 study in the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality which discovered that “55% 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.”
One of the researchers, Howard Kassinove, said: “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.’ 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.”
How To Cope With Feelings of Anger
So how do we deal with our own anger in a constructive way? How do we move towards a place that is assertive, rather than aggressive?
Make it clear what your needs are, and how to have them met without hurting other people, advises the APA. “Being assertive doesn’t mean being pushy or demanding; it means being respectful of yourself and others.”
Avoid suppressing your anger by holding it in because “anger turned inward may cause hypertension, high blood pressure, or depression,” says the APA. (A longitudinal study by psychologist Dr. Ernest Harburg even found that people who hid the anger they felt in response to an unjust attack were more likely to get bronchitis and heart attacks).
When you’re in the heat of the moment, take a second to soothe yourself. Take deep breaths and allow your heart rate to lower. “Exercise can help [to let off steam], as can journaling, talking to people, and dancing,” says Chapple.
When you’re physically calmer, you’ll be able to move into that assertive and respectful space, without either suppressing feelings or becoming passive-aggressive.
Psychologist and specialist in anger management, Bernard Golden PhD, identified eight key skills in practising healthy responses to anger. They include:
- Observing and experiencing anger without being overwhelmed by it
- Viewing anger as a signal to direct our attention inward
- Developing self-compassion
- Developing strategies to let go of anger
Use Anger, Don’t Let It Use You
If you’re ever in a situation where someone is making you feel that your anger is “wrong” or “bad,” remember that it is perfectly healthy to experience anger.
Use the feeling as a prompt to look inwards and explore what you need. Developing the skills to cope with anger in a way that is assertive (rather than suppressing it or lashing out) is the key to not letting the emotion overcome and control you.
“Try to find something productive or positive to off-set the anger,” Chapple advises. “For example, if you’re angry about the mistreatment of others, find a way to help people.” If used in the right way, anger can definitely be healthy, and even beneficial to yourself and others. If you feel like you need help managing your anger in a healthy way speaking with a licensed online therapist is an inexpensive, convenient way to get started.