If I were to judge myself objectively, I would say that I am an emotionally balanced person without an “anger problem.” But I feel angry very often and intensely. Lots of things can cause me to lose it, from pollution, leaf blowers and street-sweeper trucks (basically anything that makes excessive mechanical noise) to aggressive strangers to hurtful comments made by online or real-life bullies. Oh and don’t get me started on people on the news who harm nature, animals, and other people. They get a slice of my anger as well! My response varies: frowning in silence, cursing to myself, and confronting people, if it feels necessary. Regardless, I’m aware that I’m angry and that fact pisses me off nearly as much. I want to be a peaceful, non-angry person!
First of all, there are valid reasons to not want to be angry. Numerous studies argue that being angry is bad for your health. In oldest adults, anger is associated with increased inflammation and chronic illness, and is worse for health than sadness (although this effect is not observed among younger seniors and adults). According to Duke University Medical Center, otherwise healthy but angry people are at a higher risk for stroke and heart disease. This makes intuitive sense to me, as someone who regularly experiences a spike in stress hormones and a hammering heart! Aside from potential death by heart attack, I also think being angry is quite an energy drain. Most people quite rightly want to avoid anger and conflict. (Although high-testosterone individuals may actually seek out anger response from others as a form of pleasure—think: schoolyard bullies.)
Before you (I mean me) fall down a guilt spiral, there is a catch. Anger isn’t a 100% negative emotion, after all. In fact, anger has been vilified beyond its proper scope. A 2015 study by the University of Michigan researchers found that anger’s negative health effects were culturally dependent—and that expressing anger was even associated with better health in certain cultures. “Our study suggests that the truism linking anger to ill health may be valid only within the cultural boundary of the ‘West,’ where anger functions as an index of frustration, poverty, low status and everything else that potentially compromises health,” said Shinobu Kitayama, the author of the study.
This is ringing all sorts of bells in the wake of MeToo/Black Lives Matter: anger in the West is seen as a lower-class and victim response. Think of the Angry Black Man/ Angry Black Woman trope, which puts the onus on the oppressed to process their emotions instead of addressing the cause: systemic racism. Same thing applies to the Angry Feminist trope. Of course, women who speak up for their rights must be just angry, hysterical, and bitter!
Dr. Kitayama looked at the biomarkers of health for Japanese people who expressed anger and found that they actually were healthier than others. He attributed this phenomenon to the fact that in Japan, only people of higher status and power can express anger. So, negative effects of anger are not caused by anger itself, but other factors that cause the anger such as racism, pollution, misogyny, bullies, etc.
I feel better knowing that the rational response to certain situations and people is anger. You too should acknowledge that you’re not a “bad person” for feeling a justified emotion! However, like I said, anger is an uncomfortable emotion—and if you’re not totally into your heart racing and veins swirling with stress hormones, here are a couple of tips to smooth things as much as possible.
- Mindful Emotional Awareness: observing your own emotions without judgment is key to managing anger. You don’t need to condemn your emotions—just notice.
- Cognitive Reappraisal: Can you reinterpret this situation so that you’re less angry? Are there alternative theories to why your mom said that mean thing? Could it be she was tired / truly clueless about how you would be hurt?
- Sleep and food: a number of studies suggest that missing a few hours’ sleep or being overly hungry (“hangry”) can cause a normal frustration into a full-blown meltdown. Prioritize your rest so you can be resilient.
May you be less angry. (But it’s really okay if you are—go ahead!)
Photo: Jim Flores via Unsplash