The healthy way to be angry

You have to attend an important dinner tonight after work and the clothes you need are at the dry cleaners. The dry cleaners are closed by the time you leave the office, so your partner has kindly agreed to collect the clothes for you. But when you get home, your partner looks up, puts his hand over his mouth, and gasps, “Your dry cleaner!”

You can’t believe it. Your heartbeat speeds up, your face turns red, you want to scream. What do you do next? Are you taking a hit? Do you unleash your anger, or do you push all your hard feelings down?

Anger itself is a perfectly healthy and even useful emotion. But the way you express your angry feelings can be more harmful than whatever it was that made you angry in the first place.

“Anger tends to get a bad rap as an emotion we want to avoid when in reality it’s a very valid and important emotion,” says Erin S. Bullett, PhD, director of the Psychological Services Clinic at the University of Missouri. “But not all expressions of anger or the behaviors we combine with anger are helpful.”

What is anger for?

Anger is a biological response – part of the “fight-or-flight” response. This survival mechanism may have helped keep the earliest humans alive despite threats. It prompts the body to react in a bad situation, whether that reaction is to fight back or run away.

While people today may not face the same threats to their lives as their earliest ancestors, anger still serves an important purpose.

“Anger can motivate us to change behavior when, for example, an important goal is blocked, when someone we care about is threatened or attacked, or when we feel disrespected or as if we’ve lost power,” says Bullett. “Both physical and emotional pain can trigger anger in us.”

When you get angry, it can also be a so-called secondary emotion. That is, it is the result of another emotion, such as jealousy or fear.

You can usually express a secondary emotion, says Ashley Hicks, PhD, director of the Ohio State University Couple and Family Therapy Clinic, in a way that doesn’t make you feel as vulnerable or exposed as the primary emotion. “So, often when we think we’re angry, we feel really hurt, ashamed, scared, abandoned, or like we’re out of control,” Hicks says.

So what is evil in anger?

Granted, anger is an important emotion that tells you, “Something is wrong, out of balance or unfair, and that needs to change,” Hicks says.

But when your body is in fight-or-flight mode, you’re under stress. Occasional stress is necessary, but constant stress, including anger, can be harmful to your health.

Research shows that anger is a risk factor for heart disease. Feeling it all the time can increase your risk of high blood pressure, stroke, ulcers and bowel disease. It may also slow wound healing and increase the risk of certain cancers.

For these reasons, it is smart to learn to control and propagate this beast in a healthy way.

Red flags when you see red

First, you need to know what anger feels like in your body before you can rate it as constructive or destructive, Hicks says. “Since we often believe that anger is a bad thing that we should ignore or avoid completely, we begin to ignore its symptoms.”

The next time you feel angry, stop and take stock of how that feels in your body to help you build awareness. Does your heart rate accelerate? Is your jaw tightening? Are you crying?

Some signs that you are about to turn your eyelid include feeling warm or flushed, a pounding heart, or raising your voice. “These could be signs that we tend to respond to our anger in ways that may be less adaptive,” Bullett says.

Perhaps the most red flag of all, she adds, is whether your heated emotions are causing you to behave in ways you’ve regretted in the past. You may be saying unfair and hurtful things to the person who upset you. Maybe you storm out and cause a silence between the two of you that lasts for days.

But how can you get off that collision course for a blow-up or a stalemate and catch yourself before it’s too late?

Be aware if you are crazy

Make no mistake, it’s hard to see a situation clearly when you see red. But that’s what you have to learn to do if you want to express your feelings in a healthy, rather than harmful, way.

Practicing mindfulness when you’re not angry can help you develop the skills you need to be mindful when you’re angry. Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present in the moment, aware of what you are thinking and feeling, down to the smallest sensations, without being overwhelmed by the situation or overreacting to it.

Learning how to be mindful in benign situations, such as when you eat or brush your teeth, can call on those skills in hot times.

And the benefits of mindfulness when anger strikes are many.

“It can help with emotional regulation and help you slow down in the moment so you don’t engage in that angry behavior,” Bullett says.

When you slow down in the moment, or take a beat, you’re better able to think about what the right next action might be. In some cases it may be to walk away. In other cases, it may be to tell the person that you are upset and why. If you do express your feelings, once you’ve taken that beat, you can do it more slowly, which can make for a better response from the other person.

The healthiest response to anger will not be the same for everyone in every situation. If you can quickly blow a fuse, you may need to learn to walk away. But, says Bullett, “If you’re someone who tends to dash and stew, you may need to learn to assertively confront the situation with ‘I’ statements.”

“I” statements refer to talking only about yourself in the heat of battle to avoid saying something to the other person that you might regret later. So instead of, “You never listen to me,” in response to the forgotten dry cleaner, you could say, “I feel like I’m not being listened to.”

You can also remind yourself when you take a stroke to look at the situation from the other person’s point of view. You may see a reason why they took the action that made you angry — even if you don’t agree.

“Mindfulness can also help us check the facts, which is a great thing,” Bullett says.

Do some fact checking

If you’re upset, Bullett advises before responding, ask yourself what your assumptions are about the incident versus what you know to be fact.

For example, you might assume that someone cuts you off in traffic because they’re a thoughtless jerk. But in reality, you probably don’t have any facts about the other driver. That driver could be heading for an emergency or having a bad day, leaving them careless in traffic.

You can also check the facts about yourself at that time. For example, ask yourself if your feelings are justified or if you are tired or stressed and that is why you reacted angrily.

“If you really start to think about what you do and don’t know about the situation, you’re less likely to overreact,” Bullett says.

Mindfulness is a popular practice these days — and for good reason: Research shows that the practice relieves anger. One study found that mindfulness reduced anger, hostility and irritation in the workplace. Other studies have found that the practice reduces anger and anxiety in people with troubling health diagnoses, such as cancer and diabetes.

Given its popularity, it won’t be hard to find out for yourself. Mindfulness workshops are plentiful online and in real life in many metropolitan areas. For those who can’t find an actual course, the Netflix documentary series Headspace Guide to Meditation offers lessons in mindfulness. There are also plenty of mindfulness apps available.

When you choose to walk away

Emotions express themselves in physical ways in the body, Hicks says. “So we need to release that angry energy from our bodies.”

If in your moment of mindfulness you decided not to argue or argue about the events that drove you crazy, you may need to release that negative energy in other ways. Maybe it’s as simple as screaming into a pillow or taking a deep breath and counting to 10.

But you may need continuous channels for angry energy. Learn your triggers, suggests Bullett. You may be most likely to get angry after a long day at work or when the bills are due. Find an outlet for angry energy on those days when you are triggered and prone to bad behavior.

“You can learn to channel anger in ways that can be helpful. Intense exercise can help change our mood,” Bullett says, “or, you know, there’s a reason ‘anger clearing’ is a thing.”

Keep in mind that anger, like all your other feelings, is a valid emotion. Often it is even undeniably justified. It’s that anger gets the best out of you and your relationships and it should be avoided.

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