Hell hath no fury like me in a political argument. My heart pounds. My breath speeds. My face reddens. I look like I just worked out, but that sweaty, vibrant flush is pure, righteous anger.
Wise people throughout human history have taught us to beware the excesses of anger. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and ancient Greek philosophy all provide some choice wisdom on the subject. Science bears these teachings out. Frequent, intense, or prolonged anger causes physical and psychological stress, increasing our risk of committing intimate partner violence, getting into a car crash, abusing drugs, and even suffering from heart disease.
Yet there’s another body of evidence, which indicates that not all anger is bad. Indeed, psychologists argue that in moderate doses, anger can: motivate us, make us more creative, deepen our relationships, help us advocate against social ills, and inspire us to pursue our goals.
Imagine anger as a big dog. When it’s out of control, that dog becomes a risk not only to intruders but to its owner. But sometimes, a barking dog can help keep its owner safe — as long as the owner trusts the dog won’t turn on them or their loved ones. In the same way, by dealing with anger mindfully, we can channel our rage to address the underlying issue — without the big dog of our anger turning around and biting us in the process.
The Surprising Benefits of Seeing Red
Just like our dogs bark when a suspicious stranger comes to the door, anger is the human brain’s way of signalling that something just isn’t right. Human beings are highly attuned to standards of fairness, and when we experience disappointment, disrespect, injustice, or unmet expectations, we may become angry.
That’s not inherently a bad thing. At best, anger can be a mark of conscience. As the American Psychological Association points out, if it weren’t for righteous anger at injustice, women may still not have the right to vote. In our personal lives, anger can help us work harder to achieve our goals. Several studies have found that anger can help us advocate for ourselves, with people who demonstrated anger in mock negotiations having their demands met more often than people who projected happiness.
While anger can distort our thinking and make it difficult to reason calmly, under certain conditions it can actually make us more rational. Even the irrational side of anger can be good, making us more creative. While in the long term, anger is an exhausting and unsustainable emotion, research has shown that feeling anger allows us to think in more unstructured ways for short periods of time, opening our minds to inspiration.
When Your Anger Keeps You Back
Seeing red isn’t always rosy. While anger itself is value-neutral, dealing with that anger inappropriately — either by repressing it or by harming ourselves and others — can have negative consequences for ourselves and our relationships. Think again of that dog: if you let it run wild without any training at all, it will bite you; but if you keep it in a cage all the time, it may act out against strict restraints.
Unhealthy ways of coping with anger include aggression toward yourself or others, like shouting, screaming, physical violence, and self harm. Some people may become passive aggressive, withdrawing and acting out rather than engaging affirmatively with the conflict.
While aggression can help us get what we want, it can also have negative long-term consequences. Anger helps us most in negotiations when the person we’re negotiating with is less powerful than us or has fewer options than we do. While we should be assertive in advocating for ourselves, there’s a fine line between being a tough negotiator and a bully: no one wants to be that person screaming curses at a service worker in public.
Channeling Anger in a Healthy Way
So how do we train the dog? Just like we’d search for what made our dog bark so we can address the threat, we can understand what our anger is telling us and make positive changes.
Some psychologists recommend the STAR-R system as a way of mindfully dealing with anger. STAR-R stands for Stop, Think, Ask, Reduce, and Reward. If you find anger is overwhelming you and affecting your daily life in a negative way, you can use whatever method works for you. The shared goal is to slow a situation down and take a moment to think so we don’t harm ourselves and others.
Let’s use the example of me in a political argument, with which I started the piece, to understand how the STAR-R system works. Picture me, sitting at a friend’s kitchen table as another guest makes comments I find offensive. My heart is beating faster. My color and voice are both rising. I’m about to shout something spiteful or aggressive rather than engaging and productive.
First, I can stop. I can check in with how I’m feeling. I can notice my racing heart, my labored breathing, and the burning feeling in my chest. I can begin to calm myself down by taking a long, slow breath.
Next, I can think. What will happen if I lose my temper? While I may genuinely find this person’s behavior objectionable, if I scream at them or insult them, they will disengage and double down on their viewpoint, and I won’t be able to get my point across or change their mind.
Then, I can ask. Why am I so angry? Are their comments discriminatory against my identity or the identity of my loved ones? Am I hungry and tired, and thus have a shorter fuse than usual? Are there more productive ways I can engage with this person and issue to enact the social change I care about? At this stage, I can imagine alternative ways to approach the situation in order to address the underlying problem. For example, I could invite my “opponent” to have a longer discussion over coffee; I could go shout slogans at a protest; or if my opponent has a misconception about mental health, I could help educate myself and others by writing an article about the issue for Talkspace!
Finally, I can reduce my anger by taking a moment away from the conversation to collect myself, or by having a snack if I’m hungry and irritable (hanger is real!).
The final step in STAR-R is reward. This calls for acknowledging when we’ve successfully approached our anger mindfully instead of acting out, and perhaps giving ourselves a well-deserved treat.
Make Anger Work for You
There’s nothing shameful about a dog barking when it’s hurt or hears a scary noise. In the same way, there’s nothing inherently wrong with anger. Rather than shying away from anger, repressing it, or losing our heads at every slight, we can view anger as our body’s invitation to address an unmet need, right a social wrong, or solve a conflict.
Anger is a powerful emotion and coping with it in a healthy way is hard work. We won’t always get it right, but we can acknowledge our effort, channel our anger into things we really care about, and — as always! — commit to growth.