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Anger -- Valuable and Misunderstood

Updated: Oct 14, 2019

Anger gets a bad rap.  Like all of our emotions, anger has a purpose, and while many of us can use a tune-up in terms of the way we manage anger, it can be a useful and important emotion in life.

How is anger useful?

First and foremost, anger can be useful in propelling us into productive action.  For example, if we are angry because we are being treated unfairly or insulted, anger can motivate us to stand up for ourselves, or make a decision to change or leave a situation that is troubling us.A specific type of anger, called “Moral Anger” helps hold our society and institutions together.  This is a type of anger that is triggered by violation of universal standards or norms of justice, human dignity, or ethics.  This type of anger, when used effectively upholds the shared values that underpin all the ways we interact within institutions (such as marriage, spiritual/religious practice, education, parenting, etc.) and groups that define society.  When our anger is about concern for other people’s rights and wellbeing, this is “Altruistic Anger,” which sometimes galvanizes an organized group response.

Then why the bad rap?

Simply, anger gets a bad rap because it makes us feel bad, and its unskilled management damages relationships, closes off options, and undermines health.  Everyone has examples of things they have done or said in anger, and later wish they hadn’t, as well as cases in which they were treated badly by an angry person.  The trouble comes when our angry emotion is in charge, rather than the rational process that anticipates possible positive and negative consequences of different actions.

How can I manage my anger skillfully?

First, don’t expect yourself to live anger-free.  Anger is normal, and it’s there for a reason.  Accepting anger as a given lowers our compulsion to get rid of it as quickly as possible, and allows to delay our response and be more thoughtful.Look for the primary root of the anger.  Almost always, anger is a secondary emotional response to an initial experience of another, more vulnerable emotion such as fear, hurt, shame, or sadness. Understanding the primary emotion is helpful in choosing a response that serves your long term self-interest, rather than acting in a way that provides immediate gratification, but has negative consequences. Don’t “rehearse.”  Many people, including some therapists believe that “venting” helps to discharge anger, but actually the reverse is true.  Recapitulating the stimulus experience in your mind, or in conversation has a neurological impact similar to the actual experience — it activates the amygdala, the brain structure that responds with fight or flight behavior, which in turn impacts heart rate, hormones in a way that perpetuates the experience of anger. 

Rehearsing is different from talking with someone else who meets your human need for empathy and/or helps you evaluate possible solutions and make a plan.Cultivate empathy. Understanding how another person was feeling and from what context they were acting — from their perspective — can help reduce feelings of anger, build shared understanding, de-escalate conflicts, and enhance relationships.Reduce your stress.  Chronic stress leaves us depleted, including having a deficit of emotional and physical stamina to cope with frustration. 

Stress reduction techniques include:

Mindfulness, which can help redirect away from unproductive worry,

Breathing techniques which improve heart rate variability,

Autogenics, which uses the mind-body connection to relieve stress symptoms; Biofeedback, which helps “coach” in real-time our breathing and thought patterns which impact on blood pressure,

Assertiveness, and time management help reduce the number and intensity of stressful situations

Sleep hygiene assures you get plenty of restful, replenishing rest that the mind and body need to meet the challenges we face

Pursuing and engaging in pleasurable and replenishing activities,  doing the things we enjoy and which give life meaning keeps us fresh.

Anger, like other emotions is an important part of what makes human, and helps us to be effective at home, at work, and at play.  It propels us into action and helps us recognize the need for change.  The challenge is in mastering it so that we can use it in ways the deliver the results that best serve our long term interests.

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