Would you describe yourself as angry? Probably not all the time, but everyone has experienced feelings of blind, red hot rage at an injustice or aggression, real or imagined, aimed at them at some point in their lives. If you haven't gotten angry, you aren't human.
Anger has an awfully bad rep. We are largely taught to believe being riled up is a bad thing — an overwhelming negativity that possesses us and, left to fester, can only erode at any positive feelings and vibes we harbor. Messages abound that anger is something to fear and avoid, like the flu. Even Buddha was anti, touting this adage: "Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned."
As anger is part and parcel of everyday life and a basic component of the human condition, it might behoove us to take a closer look and see if we can't better understand how it might serve us in positive ways.
Can Anger Be Good for Us?
In "When Anger's a Plus?" an article published by the American Psychological Association, cites a 2002 study where almost half of a control group experienced "positive long-term effects of angry episodes" — where only 25 percent considered their long-term outcomes negative.
Scott Wilson, a clinical psychologist and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology at Teachers College Columbia University, agrees there's good that can come of anger.
For one, it's a catalyst for communication. "We are hard-wired to pick up facial cues related to anger, and perception of these cues is an important aspect of social communication. The experience of, or expression of anger, communicates to others that we are unhappy with their behavior, or that we perceive their actions to be unjust or unfair," says Wilson.
He also feels anger has a vital role to play in any relationship. "A lack of expression of anger in relationships can actually be detrimental," he explains. "The feedback anger can deliver is very important in social relationships and actually can make them healthier — as long as the anger is not too intense."
What's more, there's evidence that anger can make you more rational. Scientists studied college students to determine how anger impacts thinking and decision-making, and discovered that anger made the participants more rational and analytical, concluding that anger-induced action can come from "clear-minded and deliberative processing."
The feedback anger can deliver is very important in social relationships and actually can make them healthier — as long as the anger is not too intense.
"Like all emotions, anger is a response that organizes our thinking, our physiology, and our behavior so that we can most effectively face a particular type of challenge," he says.
It also serves as a means to an end, prepping us for confrontation, so the "fight" in our fight-or-flight systems kick in. As anger often strikes when we feel challenged, it gives us the strength we need to get assertive and make ourselves heard. "Since anger doesn't feel good subjectively, we are motivated to try and resolve the situation as quickly as possible," adds Wilson.
An article published in Scientific American, cited research that proved anger was also capable of providing a creative boost, largely because of this boost of adrenaline. But when asked, one of the authors of that study, Mattjas Baas, Assistant Professor at the department of Work and Organizational Psychology of the University of Amsterdam, says anger-as-creative-fuel usually only leads to a fast burn out.
"Anger leads to more creativity, though perhaps only in small doses," he explained. "This is because anger is stimulating and energizing. However, this creative advantage of an angry mood doesn't last for long. The experience of anger is relatively exhausting. Thus, although angry people initially generate more creative ideas, their performance eventually levels out."
This is Your Brain on Anger
Wilson also mentioned that feelings of anger can be hard to sustain for a long period of time because it's a powerful, "metabolically demanding" (draining and exhausting) emotion. After all, when you're angry, your brain experiences something closely related to stress — and stress isn't good for you. Chronic long term stress has long been linked to decreased immunity, increased risk of bronchial constriction, more acid in the stomach and an increased risk of plaque buildup in arteries.
It can also be damaging if you're wired differently, like those who suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). For the clinically anxious, anger can serve as a trigger that exacerbates symptoms — and can even be a manifestation of the condition, according to a 2012 study. In fact, the scientist in charge of that study wanted to further explore how anger and anxiety go hand-in-hand, like a chicken-egg thing, and how "heightened levels" of anger are uniquely related to GAD.
This is likely because, as Wilson explained, feelings of anxiety are associated with uncertainty and more risk in assertion, where plain old anger among the less anxious makes people feel more certain about their position and they see less risk in asserting themselves.
Now that we have a better understanding of how anger can work for us, perhaps we harness its frenetic energy so it can serve us somehow. You know, learn how to channel all that wayward angst toward a more positive end.
Wilson says one way to make anger work for you is to channel it toward a specific goal. "Creating a goal has the effect of constraining the anger and focusing it towards some target in the future," he says. For example, using it as fuel to work a little harder, beat your sprint time at the gym or boost you with enough courage to air your grievances — peacefully and rationally, of course.
So, the next time you find yourself boiling over due to a slight, just remember — you're likely feeling that way for a reason. And that reason can conjure up a moment of clarity that enables you to demand a more reasonable, and better, outcome. Why not try it?