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The Upside of Anger: It's a Strong Emotion, But Not Always a Bad One


People gather at a torchlight procession in remembrance of murdered police officer Dec. 11, 2016 in Albertslund, Denmark. Ole Jensen - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images
People gather at a torchlight procession in remembrance of murdered police officer Dec. 11, 2016 in Albertslund, Denmark. Ole Jensen - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

You're mad. Really mad. So, you punch a wall. All that gets you is a hole in your wall and bloodied knuckles. Or maybe your friend slights you, and after years of suffering these little indignities from her, you find yourself suddenly enraged. 

Anger is a strong emotion. But it's not necessarily a bad one. Merriam-Webster defines it as "a strong feeling of displeasure and usually of antagonism." Experts say this universal emotion has its roots in survival. When you're upset, it means your brain is trying to tell you to be aware; that you need to protect and take care of yourself.

"Essentially, it creates the fuel for you to be assertive, set appropriate boundaries and get your needs met," says Jeanette Raymond, a Los Angeles-based licensed psychologist and therapist who specializes in anger issues. "People who are unable to access anger become dependent, needy and allow themselves to be treated like doormats."

Kiran Dintyala agrees. A physician and stress management expert who goes by the name Dr. Calm, Dintyala says anger is a bit like pain, in that it lets you know there's a problem. But, says Dintyala, protecting or sticking up for yourself doesn't mean yelling or fisticuffs are in order. True to his moniker, he says the first thing to do when you're angry, counterintuitive as it may seem, is to settle down. This allows the frontal lobe, the part of your brain that's good with reasoning, to catch up with your amygdala, the part of your brain that wants to take action.

Is It Just Me?

So, something makes you angry, and you calm yourself down. What's next? Dintyala says to ask yourself what's causing your anger, then to ponder whether your anger is just about your own perspective. Let's say your boss chews out everyone in your department, but no one is fazed about it except you. Perhaps your colleagues know this is just how the boss acts, but you take it as a personal attack on the quality and integrity of your work. "There are an infinite number of realities in the world," Dintyala says. "So, ask yourself, 'Is it just my perspective?' If the answer is yes, that realization often can resolve your anger."

But what if it's not just your perspective? What if a lot of your colleagues or community members are angry about an issue? Then you need to decide if it's going to help the situation if you're all reactive. Most of the time, the answer is no. Instead of letting your anger guide you to a resolution, you may wish to explore your anger with your colleagues or neighbors, write about it or draw about it, all of which can productively channel your anger and possibly lead to a plan of action through the group's collective wisdom.

"Anger is a source of creative juice," Raymond says. "You can focus on goals to beat the obstacles holding you back."

Channeling Anger for Positive Results

Angry that a drunk driver mowed into you and you now suffer from chronic pain? Instead of stewing about it daily, you may be better served working with your state legislature to stiffen penalties for driving under the influence.

Taking it to a more personal level, if you're angry with a friend, family member or spouse, experience that emotion and then deal with it through communication. Women in particular find this difficult, and often avoid confrontation. But if you can constructively express your anger and the recipient can hear it, understand it and work with you to resolve the issue, the result is often a stronger, healthier relationship.

Today we're often told that we shouldn't let our anger fester and rule our lives, as it may end up destroying us. While that's true, it's also true that we shouldn't stifle our anger. Those who don't ever let themselves feel anger, or who internalize it, often suffer from depression and anxiety, develop health problems, and have difficulties communicating.

"To be angry is OK. It's really OK," says Dintyala. "But don't hang onto it and keep revolving it in your mind. Because that's when it turns into hate and resentment."

And as Raymond points out, "Hate is rooted in destruction in an effort to feel victorious, superior and omnipotent.” Hate also tries to control others. Anger, in contrast, is simply a normal, human emotion.

Poet David Whyte writes that "anger is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt.”  The Stuff of Life podcast titled "The Big Hurt: Hate/Anger" looks at how anger is constructive and what happens when it becomes destructive. We also look at hate groups and what makes people join them. It's not always who you think.

To learn more, listen to The Stuff of Life at this link.



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