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The Downside of Anger

A strong emotion that is accompanied by arousal of the nervous system, anger produces effects throughout the body. But if you express it, you're not necessarily better off.

Funny thing about anger. As emotions go it's often pretty clear-cut. It's rarely subtle.

But is there an emotion that is more misunderstood? Many believe that holding anger in is bad for you, that it only builds pressure to be expressed. In fact, sudden bursts of anger or prolonged anger are bad for you. A strong emotion that is accompanied by arousal of the nervous system, anger produces effects throughout the body. It eats away at your cardiovascular system, your gut and hijacks nervous system, often obliterating the capacity for clear thinking. And it may even grow in intensity.

But express it—and you're not necessarily better off. Anger doesn't automatically dissipate by being unleashed. We rarely experience catharsis. Venting it in words or action doesn't make anger easier to manage; often it only increases the intensity of the feeling. Anger often feeds on itself. Plus, by furthering aggression it often brings irreversible damage to those in the immediate vicinity.

People have trouble managing anger and other negative emotions. Anger is often one of the few emotions men consider it "acceptable" to display. But that doesn't mean they respond well when someone else displays anger towards them.

In many cultures, women are under pressure to conceal their anger. Sometimes they do such a good job of it they don't even recognize it in themselves.

Because anger is such a forceful negative emotion and makes people uncomfortable, taboos about expressing it are widespread. How many of us have heard some variation of this refrain while growing up: "If you are going to stomp around the house you can go to your room and stay there until you've finished being angry."

The sad upshot is, under those conditions no one learns how to manage anger appropriately. People may not even recognize when they are angry. Or they may conceal anger until it explodes out of them in the form of hurtful words or deeds.

Studies show that the ability to identify and label emotions correctly, and talk about them straightforwardly to the point of feeling understood, makes negative feelings dissipate. And the physiologic arousal that accompanies those feelings also diminishes dramatically.

But when anger is deemed unacceptable, people stay in a state of arousal, unable to pay attention to what is going on in the world around them, unable to regulate their own behavior and focused only on their inner emotional state. In fact, they tend to experience excessive physiologic arousal in situations involving negative emotions—but they tend not to display any external signs of emotional response. Imagine how that can confuse a friend or a spouse! That's because they hide their emotions but feel anxious in emotionally evocative situations.

Sometimes, however, telling someone we are angry brings feelings of relief, especially when we also express why we are angry. Psychologists believe that the relief we feel under those circumstances results not from venting the anger but from identifying the anger-arousing circumstances and working towards a solution.

And that points to the positive value that anger has. It's a great motivator for change. It encourages us to speak up about something bothering us.

But it's all in how we do it, because in goading us to action about things that upset us, anger can also prompt us to overreact. So first and foremost, lengthen your fuse so that you are not reacting to every tiny upset and you can think your way to a constructive solution.

  • Take three deep breaths.

    When you are angry, your body becomes tense. Breathing deeply will ease the tension and help lower your internal anger meter.

  • Change your environment.

    The quickest way to uncouple yourself from an ongoing source of anger is to take a five-minute walk to get some fresh air. Stuck in traffic? Take a mental escape by turning up the radio and singing at the top of your lungs.

  • Know why you feel angry.

    Track down the clues about the kinds of things, situation, people and events that trigger your anger. Anger often masks our deepest fears. In an angry-making situation, ask yourself what deep fears it might be stirring in you.

  • Let go of what is beyond your control.

    You can change only yourself and your responses to others, not what others do to you. Getting angry doesn't fix the situation and makes you feel worse. If someone constantly arouses your anger, focus on the troublesome situation and brainstorm solutions.

  • Express yourself.

    Be sure to think first and use measured tones and words that are not emotionally loaded. In a nonconfrontational way state that you are angry and identify the situation that makes you angry and why it ticks you off.

  • Be cautious.

    There are situations in which expressing your anger holds danger. Having a jealous or abusive partner is one. Vent to a friend instead of the person who wronged you; you may wind up with some solutions you never imagined.

  • Be assertive, not aggressive, in expressing yourself.

    Assertiveness requires speaking in an effective, nonviolent way towards a constructive goal. It may help if you rehearse your response before delivering it.

  • Make positive statements.

    Memorize a few positive statements to say to yourself when your anger is triggered. They will remind you that you can choose your behavior instead of reacting in a knee-jerk way. For example, you might say: "I can take care of my own needs" or "His needs are just as important as mine" or "I am able to make good choices."