We’ve all been there: Banging our heads on the kitchen floor and bawling like the end is near because Mom or Dad won’t let us have a second popsicle before bed. Okay, so maybe that was 20-plus years ago. We may have developed slightly better methods for coping with our anger since then (the ability to reach the popsicles in the freezer probably helps). But those feelings of frustration, injustice, and rage still have a way of rearing their heads, even if it’s directed toward a political figure, an asinine boss, or a romantic partner instead of the Dessert Police. Anger can make us feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and out of control — so is there anything redeeming about it?
The surprising answer is yes — but it all depends on how we cope with it. Read on to learn how anger can benefit us, and how we can manage it so that it works to our best advantage.
Raving About Rage — The Need-to-Know
Anger is defined as an unpleasant reaction (either emotional or behavioral) to a demand, belief, or unmet expectation. Typically, anger consists of three components: thinking (negative thoughts), feeling (disappointment, frustration, contempt, rage), and acting (shaking a fist, yelling, violence).
Understandably, these thoughts, feelings, and actions aren’t all that desirable, nor are they generally well-received in social situations. But tempting as it might be to repress our rage, doing so can have negative health consequences. Studies have found that suppressing anger can worsen the experience of pain and put stress on people’s cardiovascular systems; pushing anger down has also been tied to anxiety and depression Emotion suppression affects cardiovascular responses to initial and subsequent laboratory stressors. Quartana, PJ and Burns, JW. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. British Journal of Health Psychology, 2010 Sep;15(Pt 3):511-28. Epub 2009 Oct 16 Anger suppression predicts pain, emotional, and cardiovascular responses to the cold pressor. Quartana, PJ, Bounds, S., Yoon, KL, et al. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2010 Jun;39(3):211-21 The relation between anger management style, mood and somatic symptoms in anxiety disorders and somatoform disorders. Koh, KB, Kim, DK, Kim, SY, et al. Department of Psychiatry, Yonsei University College of Medicine, Republic of Korea. Psychiatry Research, 2008 Sep 30;160(3):372-9. Epub 2008 Aug 21.
In contrast, the benefits of acknowledging and harnessing our angry energy are well-documented in scientific studies. Anger can be a motivating force that also might make people feel more optimistic and confident. Acknowledging anger can help lower stress on the heart and manage pain, at least in laboratory studies Anger management style moderates effects of emotion suppression during initial stress on pain and cardiovascular responses during subsequent pain-induction. Burns, JW, Quartana, PJ, and Bruehl, S. Department of Psychology, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2007 Oct;34(2):154-65 Anger inhibition and pain: conceptualizations, evidence and new directions. Burns, JW, Quartana, PJ, and Bruehl, S. Department of Psychology, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. Journal of Behavioral Meidicne, 2008 Jun;31(3):259-79. Epub 2008 May 23. And expressing anger as it arises (instead of bottling it up and letting it all come out in one explosive fight) has also been found to benefit interpersonal relationships.
Perhaps more than anything else, anger benefits us by alerting us that something is wrong on an individual, interpersonal, or societal scale. In the simplest sense, anger may be one of the reasons why we no longer have segregated water fountains, why someone chooses to end a deadening career, or why a person leaves an unhealthy relationship. But does this mean we should all go around punching walls every time we get annoyed or witness injustice?
Addressing Anger — Your Action Plan
As with so many health-related factors, moderation is key. Out-of-control expressions of anger (think screaming and escalating rage, maybe to the point of physical violence) can be bad for people’s hearts (literally) — these outbursts have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease Hostility, anger control, and anger expression as predictors of cardiovascular disease. Haukkala, A., Konttinen, H., Laatikainen, T., et al. Department of Social Psychology, University of Helsinki. Psychosomatic Medicine, 2010 Jul;72(6):556-62. Epub 2010 Apr 21. Such expressions can also have serious consequences for an angry person’s romantic partner(s) or family.
In short, there’s a difference between anger and mismanaged anger — and the key to reaping anger’s benefits lies in learning how to cope with it in a healthy way. Every person’s experience of anger is different, based on factors like age, gender, and context (the anger a person feels toward a boss may be different than the feelings she or he directs at a significant other). But the basic steps for coping apply across the board, whether at school, at the office, or at home. One of the most popular anger management strategies goes by the acronym STAR-R, short for Stop, Think, Ask, Reduce, Reward. The steps look something like this:
Stop. Pause. Count to 10 if you’re having trouble being still, and don’t forget to breathe! Notice that you’re getting angry. Look for signs like muscles tensing, face getting hot, hands shaking, breath shortening, voice rising, and a desire to run away.
Think. Picture the consequences if you lose control — for both you and the person with whom you’re angry (e.g. I’ll feel worse; I’ll be embarrassed in front of my coworkers; I’ll hurt my loved one).
Ask. Ask yourself what you’re really angry about. What need do you have that isn’t being met? Are you acting out of a knee-jerk desire for self-protection? Are you really angry at the current situation, or are you still bothered by something that happened days ago? We usually feel safer taking out our anger on people close to us, but it’s important not to misdirect feelings. Instead, focus on identifying your needs (after all, the definition of anger is all about unmet expectations). Work to figure out how these needs can be met in a healthy way. If this requires another person’s involvement, then talk to that person about it — but only after you’ve calmed down and when you both have the time to hear each other out.
Reduce. Ask yourself how you can cool off, and then take the time to do it. Classic cool-down activities include taking a walk, showering, listening to relaxing music, hitting a pillow, journaling, calling a friend, working out, meditating, or doing a few yoga poses. It’s okay if it takes a few hours or even days to cool off. What’s important is that you return to the situation with a level head and the ability to communicate your needs and negotiate conflicts in a calm manner. Whenever it’s time to have a conversation, use “I” statements (“I felt hurt by your words” instead of “You always hurt me”) and listen to the other person’s feelings to minimize the chances of triggering another round of fighting.
Reward. Appreciate yourself for managing your anger. It’s hard work, and it’s quite likely that we won’t get it right every time. But a little positive reinforcement (a long bubble bath, a day at the botanical gardens, tickets to see a favorite sports team) can encourage you to keep handling anger like a STAR.
What are your go-to strategies for managing anger? Share in comments below or get in touch with the author on Twitter @LauraNewc.