You have an important dinner to attend tonight after work and the clothes you need are at the cleaners. The dry cleaner will be closed by the time you leave the office, so your partner has graciously agreed to pick the clothes up for you. But when you get home, your partner looks up, claps a hand over their mouth, and gasps, “Your dry cleaning!”
You can’t believe it. Your pulse quickens, your face flushes, you want to scream. What do you do next? Do you take a beat? Do you unleash your wrath, 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 that 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 that we pair with anger are useful.”
What’s Anger For?
Anger is a biological reaction — part of the “fight-or-flight” response. This survival mechanism may have helped keep the earliest humans alive in the face of threats. It prompts the body to respond in a bad situation, whether that response is to fight back or run away.
While people today may not face the same threats to their lives that their earliest ancestors did, anger still serves an important purpose.
“Anger can motivate us to engage in change behavior if, for example, an important goal is being blocked, if someone we care about is being threatened or attacked, or if we feel disrespected or like we have lost power,” Bullett says. “Both physical and emotional pain can elicit anger for us.”
When you get mad, it can also be what’s called a secondary emotion. That is, it’s 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 won’t make you feel as vulnerable or exposed as the primary emotion would. “So, often when we think we are angry, what we are really feeling is hurt, embarrassed, afraid, abandoned, or like we are not in control,” Hicks says.
So What’s the Harm in Anger?
True, anger is an important emotion that tells you, “something is wrong, off balance, or unfair, and that it needs to change,” Hicks says.
But when your body is in fight-or-flight mode, you are under stress. Occasional stress is necessary, but constant stress, which includes anger, can be harmful to your health.
Research shows that anger is a risk factor for heart disease. When you feel it all the time, it can raise your risk for high blood pressure, stroke, ulcers, and intestinal diseases. It may also delay wound healing and increase the risk for certain cancers.
For these reasons, it’s smart to learn to manage and diffuse this beast in healthy ways.
Red Flags When You’re Seeing Red
First, you have to know what anger feels like in your body to begin with before you can evaluate it as constructive or destructive, Hicks says. “Since we often believe that anger is a bad thing that we should dismiss or avoid completely, we start to ignore the symptoms of it.”
The next time you feel angry, stop and take stock of how that feels in your body to help you build awareness. Does your pulse quicken? Does your jaw tighten? Do you cry?
Some signs that you might be on the verge of flipping your lid include feeling hot or flushing, a pounding heart, or raising your voice. “These can be signs that we are prone to act on our anger in ways that may be less adaptive,” Bullett says.
Perhaps the reddest flag of all, she adds, is whether your heated emotions lead you to behave in a way that you have regretted behaving in the past. Maybe you say unfair and hurtful things to the person who has upset you. Maybe you storm out and trigger 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 stand-off and get a hold of yourself before it’s too late?
Be Mindful When You’re Mad
Make no mistake, it’s hard to see a situation clearly when you’re seeing red. But that’s what you need to learn to do if you want to express your feelings in healthy, rather than harmful, ways.
Practicing mindfulness when you’re not angry can help you build the skills you need to be mindful when you are angry. Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present in the moment, aware of what you are thinking and feeling, down to the most minute sensations, without being overwhelmed by the situation or overly reactive to it.
Learning how to be mindful in benign situations, such as when you are eating or brushing your teeth, can help you call on those skills in heated moments.
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 that you don’t engage in those angry behaviors,” Bullett says.
When you slow down, or take a beat, in the moment, you become more able to think about what might be the appropriate next action. 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. When you do communicate your feelings, having taken that beat will allow you to do so more calmly, which can make for a better reaction from the other person.
The healthiest response to anger won’t be the same for every person in every situation. If you are prone to blowing a fuse, you may need to learn to walk away. But, Bullett says, “If you are a person who tends to storm away and stew, you may need to learn to confront the situation in an assertive manner with ‘I’ statements.”
“I” statements refer to speaking only about yourself in the heat of the moment in order to avoid saying something to the other person that you might later regret. So rather than, “You never listen to me,” in response to the forgotten dry cleaning, you might say, “I feel like I’m not being heard.”
You can also remind yourself when you take a beat to look at the situation from the other person’s point of view. Perhaps you will see a reason why they took the action that made you angry — even if you don’t agree with it.
“Mindfulness can also help us check the facts, which is a big thing,” Bullett says.
Do Some Fact-Checking
When you are angry, before you react, Bullett advises that you ask yourself what your assumptions are about the incident versus what you know to be a fact.
You might assume, for example, that someone cut you off in traffic because they are a thoughtless jerk. But in reality, you probably don’t have any facts about the other driver. That driver may be on the way to an emergency or having a bad day, which made them careless in traffic.
You can also check the facts about yourself at that moment. Ask yourself, for example, whether your feelings are warranted or whether you are tired or stressed and that’s why you responded angrily.
“When you start to really think about what you know and don’t know about the situation, you’re less likely to respond rashly,” Bullett says.
Mindfulness is a popular practice these days — and for good reason: Research shows that the practice eases ire. One study found that mindfulness reduced anger, hostility, and irritation in the workplace. Other studies have found that the practice cuts down on anger and distress in people with troubling health diagnoses, such as cancer and diabetes.
Given its popularity, it won’t be hard to learn more about it on your own. Mindfulness workshops abound online and in real life in many metropolitan areas. For those who can’t find a real-life course, the Netflix docuseries 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 you’ve decided, in your moment of mindfulness, not to pursue a discussion or an argument about the events that made you mad, 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 ongoing channels for angry energy. Learn your triggers, Bullett suggests. Maybe you are most prone to getting mad after a long day at work or when bills are due. Find an outlet for angry energy on those days when you’ve been triggered and may be prone to bad behavior.
“You can learn to channel anger in a way that can be useful. Intense exercise can help shift our mood,” Bullett says, “Or, you know, there’s a reason why ‘rage cleaning’ is a thing.”
Just keep in mind, anger, like all your other feelings, is a valid emotion. Oftentimes, in fact, it is indisputably warranted. It’s letting anger get the best of you and your relationships that should be avoided.