Anger is a frequently misunderstood emotion. It’s common to believe that anger is destructive, or that it's the result of a bad attitude, but the truth is more complicated than that. Not only is anger human, but it is also a necessary function. When managed properly, it can even yield some positive outcomes. Accepting that anger is a part of life and knowing its true nature is key to utilizing this inevitable emotion effectively.
The following facts about anger might change your views on this misunderstood emotion.
One of the most common misconceptions about anger is that feeling anger is bad. The facts are quite different, as anger is an important emotion that is there to alert us that something is wrong. Adults and children experience anger differently. Children mostly feel anger as frustration. For example, they will become angry when they can’t have something they want when they want it.
Adults, on the other hand, get angry when they feel out of control. Anger in itself isn’t a bad or even dangerous emotion, as long as you address it and understand the underlying issues that it’s trying to point out. At the end of the day, anger can motivate us to respond to confrontation, unfairness, and other problems. Figuring out why we feel angry is the first step to reaping the benefits from this emotion.
Since we’re on the topic of benefits, one of the greatest upsides of anger is that it's a motivating force. Usually, expressing anger is linked to aggression. However, anger can be expressed in an infinite number of ways. While aggression is one of them, so are assertiveness and problem-solving.
According to Psychology Today, brain scans show anger significantly activates the left anterior cortex, which is associated with positive approach behaviors. Moreover, studies have shown pre-dominant left-brain activation when angry subjects perceive that they can make things better. “Expecting to be able to act to resolve the angering event should yield greater approach motivational intensity,” explained social psychologists Charles Carver of the University of Miami.
Anger is an emotion that manifests itself through strong physical sensations: tensed muscles, clenched teeth, rapid heartbeat, and sweaty palms. Anger triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response - just as fear, excitement, and anxiety do. The adrenal glands flood the body with stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. The brain then shunts blood towards the muscles in preparation for physical exertion.
These physical reactions can make us feel as though anger is controlling us, but trying to resist them will only make matters worse. According to mental health experts, the best course of action is to fully allow yourself to feel what is present. Leaning into those sensations and expressing your anger rather than trying to conceal it will calm your nervous system quicker.
While constructively expressing your anger is physically beneficial, lashing out isn’t. Issues with controlling anger and angry outbursts can have harmful and even dangerous consequences. Anger is most physically damaging to your cardiac health. A study published in the European Heart Journal found that the risk of a heart attack is doubled in the two hours following an angry outburst, and so is the risk of having a stroke. Another study found that people prone to anger as a personality trait had twice the risk of coronary disease than their less angry peers.
The good news is that you can learn to control those angry explosions. Deep breaths and assertive communication skills are two helpful tools when you feel you’re about to lose your temper. You may even need to change your environment by getting up and walking away. To learn more, check out our previous article: How to Keep Your Anger in Check.
Striving to always do your best is one thing, but believing you need to be perfect is a different thing altogether. Some aspects of perfectionism help us move towards success, but this quality has a dark side, too. In the last two decades, there has been an increase in the number of studies exploring the relationship between perfectionism and anger.
One such study found that self-directed perfectionism is associated with anger and frustration with oneself, while socially prescribed perfectionism is related to anger directed towards others. Learning to replace self-criticism with compassion and allowing imperfection is a long process, but it's definitely worth the time and effort.
As we established, feeling angry is normal and healthy. Expressing it through aggression, however, is not. If violence only brings negative results, why is it the default reaction to anger? Modern society inherited this tendency from its ancestral past. Aggression helped out forebears survive and reproduce. Until about 12,000 years ago, all humans lived as hunter-gatherers.
Research conducted by anthropologists who lived with hunter-gatherer tribes found that hunter-gatherer men who committed acts of homicide had more children, as they were more likely to survive. More recently, scientists were able to find a link between aggression and a specific gene - monoamine oxidase A or MAOA - proving beyond a doubt that aggression is hereditary.
Humor and laughter have been proven time and again to be powerful tools to lower stress levels and dissolve anger. Almost by definition, humor represents a different way of perceiving things. A joke or a shared laugh can lighten anger’s heavy load because you suddenly see the problem from a completely different perspective. The moment when our fundamental perception of something changes is called cognitive shifting. It can make a frustrating situation seem silly and less significant.
An important caveat, though, is that humor is effective at diffusing anger when it's directed at a situation and not a person.
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