"Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die." When I first heard that quote (often wrongly attributed to Buddha), I thought it was shrewd advice. I thought it meant that anger was a poisonous emotion, one we should try to get rid of.
And science does seem to make a case for avoiding anger. Anger has been associated with increased risk of hypertension and worse pain management. For people with mental health conditions, those who also have pathological levels of anger also have higher levels of suicidality and self-harm.
Our culture views anger this way, too. The Internet is littered with self-help communities preaching to let go of anger, sharing quotable advice like, "If another can easily anger you, it means you are off-balance within yourself." Or, "Anger doesn’t solve anything. It builds nothing, but can destroy everything." Even, "Anger is your biggest enemy. Control it."
All this is to say it’s clear that we not only fear anger, but condemn it as a bad emotion, even a sign of weakness. In fact, our beliefs about anger sneak their way into the way we hold prejudices—our society has dismissed voices calling for social change by labeling people "pathologically angry." Psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl wrote about this in his book Protest Psychosis, which details how Black Americans protesting for civil rights in the mid-to-late 20th century were diagnosed with (and medicated for) schizophrenia.
On the flip side, we praise those who don’t show their anger as "well-bred," "intelligent," and "sophisticated." We’ve upheld whole groups of people who tend not to show anger as model citizens. I myself have been one of these Model Minorities—a soft-spoken, frequently-apologizing, high-achieving Asian-American woman.
But I am feeling angry these days. While the events that sparked my anger and the deep-rooted social problems they expose are beyond my scope of expertise, the emotions surrounding them are my bread and butter.
Now, I realize that my young self’s understanding of one of these emotions was very wrong: Anger is not poison; it's fuel.
Anger is an emotion, not a behavior
First, let’s bring some light to an often misunderstood concept: Anger is not a behavior, it’s an emotion.
It’s a threat-activated neurophysiological arousal response, which means it’s created when a threat triggers the brain to send out a rallying cry to the body, putting the troops on high alert. The amygdala starts the call to battle. Then a cascade of brain and body events leads to adrenaline and cortisol pumping through the bloodstream, an increased heart rate, tensed muscles, heightened and narrowed attention, and a facial expression that flashes like a warning sign.
Acting aggressively isn’t mentioned anywhere in the definition of anger. That’s because anger is not a behavior; it’s not the same as hostility, violence, or aggression. Those words describe what people do; anger describes how people feel.
While anger can activate aggressive behavior, it doesn’t always and doesn’t have to. For example, you can feel mad that someone cut you in line for show tickets without flipping them the finger.
You can also hurt someone without being angry at all. For example, people who commit terrible sex crimes can be perfectly cool and calculated in the way they stalk and harass their victims.
This difference between anger and aggression is crucial. Anger is an evolutionarily hardwired, physiological, and automatic cascade in the body. Aggression is an action exercised by a person’s free will. When we recognize that, we can respect the emotion of anger even as we condemn the behavior of violence.
Anger is a valid and useful emotion
Emotions are big exclamation points that our brains hold up to get our attention when something important is happening, or when a problem needs to be solved. Fear warns us about danger, grief tells us to seek support, joy tells us that we should continue doing whatever it is that makes us feel good.
Anger is the same. It tells us that injustice is being enacted, or that we need to take action to ensure the survival of our body and our integrity.
People can steal, assault, cheat, bully, and oppress without an ounce of anger. But without anger, the victims would shrug and continue to endure injustice.
So, when you feel anger, that’s okay. It’s your brain’s way of keeping you safe. You can, and should, investigate whatever triggered your anger and use your wise mind to evaluate the facts and decide on the best actions. But whatever those turn out to be, the initial spark of anger is always allowed.
Being aggressive or suppressing anger is unhealthy
Remember the studies I mentioned showing that anger is associated with health problems? When we look closely at the research, it turns out to not be so cut and dry.
For example, studies that examine links between anger and health problems (like between anger and hypertension) tend to find that frequently behaving aggressively and habitually repressing anger are associated with hypertension and coronary heart disease. Remember how anger is an emotion, but aggression and stewing are behaviors? This means researchers are really finding that behaving in an aggressive way and bottling up anger are linked to heart disease.
On the other hand, merely experiencing anger and describing the experience does not cause cardiovascular changes that increase disease risk. It raises cortisol, but that's only a problem if it’s prolonged and chronic.
Anger is the tip of the iceberg
When we blame anger for our problems, we may be missing the point.
In reality, anger and fear often go hand in hand. In fact, anger is often a secondary emotion that only arises when a person continues to feel unsafe. So when researchers measure whether someone is habitually angry, they also tap into whether they might be habitually afraid, vulnerable, sad, or anxious. When scientists look at the biological consequences of anger versus other emotions side-by-side, it becomes clear that anxiety and sadness are what causes inflammation, not anger.
Anger is motivating
We tend to think of anger as a negative emotion, but it’s certainly got a positive twist.
While it’s true that anger often feels unpleasant, research shows that our brains and bodies get activated almost as if we’re pumped up. When we feel angry, our brain’s electrical signals show an “approach” activation, similar to when we feel positive emotions like joy. Our faces, too, betray our excitement. The orbicularis oculi are muscles under the eyes that automatically activate when we smile, and you can spot a fake smile if these muscles don’t move. It turns out that when we're angry, these muscles twitch too.
Don’t get me wrong: This doesn’t mean that anger feels good. It means that anger, like joy, is an approach emotion instead of a withdrawal one. It motivates us rather than making us retreat. Between the approach orientation and the physiological arousal (the racing heart, tense muscles, focused attention), anger makes us ready to act.
Use anger for good
So, where do we land on anger? Is anger a destructive force of violence? No, violence is a destructive force of violence. Anger is a motivating force, of which violence is only one of many options for expressing it. Is anger a poison that ruins our health? No, it’s a natural, valid emotion that responds to threats and injustice, and if expressed in a reasonable way, does not harm our health.
So, how can we use anger productively? Science says that we should heed its rallying cry because it tells us something must change. It's okay to feel angry. When we communicate it clearly, and let its motivating force fan our passion and guide our conscience, we can use anger to incite positive change.
A version of this article titled It's Okay (And Even Useful) to Be Angry originally appeared on Quick and Dirty Tips.