Anger is misunderstood. Unjustly maligned as a wholly negative emotion, anger contains multitudes: It can be both blinding yet clarifying, suffocating yet motivating. Anger serves as an internal alarm, calling attention to an unfairness or a wrong that needs righting, says psychologist Ryan Martin, author of How to Deal With Angry People and Why We Get Mad: How to Use Your Anger for Positive Change. We experience anger both the moment an offense occurs and in every instance we recall the event thereafter.
People are the root cause of anger. Everyone from romantic partners to leaders of foreign governments — and even ourselves — can make our blood boil. The way anger manifests varies, too. Anger is a punch, a scream, a red face, a silent brood, a river of tears. Anger is selfish (road rage) and selfless (protesting a war half a world away). This prickling, burning emotion — which can range from moderate irritation to complete rage — energizes us to come face-to-face with the wrongdoers, Martin says. When we’re angry, “our sympathetic nervous system activates our fight-or-flight response,” he says. “So our heart rate [is] increasing, our breathing increasing, and so on. That’s all a way to essentially give us the energy we need to fight back.”
Sometimes, this motivating drive leads to inappropriate actions: yelling profanities at the guy who cut us off in traffic, lashing out at a customer service representative, leaving passive-aggressive notes for loud neighbors, seeking revenge against a friend who hurt us. Other times, we may repress anger and stew in silence. Anger can morph into despair: that a problem is so profound the only solution is more outrage. The consequences of unproductive anger can be damaging to personal relationships and professional reputations, and dangerous to those against whom revenge is sought.
Most people report feeling angry anywhere from once a day to a few times a week, Martin says. Those who experience anger more often or so intensely that it’s distracting or interfering with work and relationships may have an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, hypertension, high blood pressure, changes in heart rate, and metabolism, muscle, and respiratory problems.
There is an effective middle ground where anger can be leveraged to make positive change. When anger’s heat burns brightest is the time to make plans, says Jennifer Lerner, a professor of public policy, management, and decision science at the Harvard Kennedy School who also studies the effects of emotions on decision-making. But wait until the fire dulls to embers to take action.
Anger is motivating, but misleading
Amid an infuriating moment, or when recalling an infuriating moment, you may be struck with a sense of certainty. Anger tells you that quitting your job is the appropriate way to deal with a work spat, or that telling your neighbor what you really think of them will get them to clean up after their dog. “It gives this sense that things are knowable,” Lerner says. “The problem is that it’s a false sense of certainty and clarity.” This unfounded confidence can lead to hasty, risky decisions and potential mistakes when, in reality, you haven’t considered alternatives.
There are a multitude of ways to respond to anger, Martin says, but before taking any action — and getting swept up in false clarity — consider what your goal is. Whether you’re aiming for more respect at work or a lawn without dog waste, musing the why of anger can lead to more productive outcomes.
Reflecting on the root of anger enables you to reconsider whether your displeasure is justified, Martin says. What initially appeared to be an unfairness was perhaps something more benign. Did your mother-in-law criticize your cooking or did she simply comment on having had lasagna the last time you had her over for dinner? Was the test exceptionally difficult or were you unprepared? “You want how you’re feeling in that moment to be rooted in what actually happened,” Martin says. “Was it a fair exam that you just didn’t study for? Okay, then maybe feel a little bit guilty and then channel that sadness or guilt into doing better next time. Was it an unfair exam that you were well prepared for but just didn’t necessarily capture what you thought it should capture? Okay, then channel that into whatever you need to do to rebound from that.”
Use anger for problem-solving
When you have an accurate assessment of why you’re angry, you can plan to ensure the injustice is rectified. “It is often really important not to ignore the anger,” Lerner says, “but to name it and claim it in some way.”
Instead of making a rash decision or stuffing down the irritation in the heat of the moment, write down all the reasons you’re mad and what you’d like to do in response. In one column, list the ways anger could help you, and in another, describe how some of these reactions could be counterproductive, says Gerrod Parrott, a psychology professor at Georgetown University. An effective way to respond to your frustration at speeding drivers on your street is to reach out to your neighbors to pool resources and to collectively write to the city to inquire about speed bumps. Throwing rocks at said motorists is unlikely to slow them down. “Planning revenge fuels anger,” Lerner says, “and can become an obsession and become very dangerous.”
For anger stemming from less personal offenses, like systemic or global injustices, consider the most constructive ways you can make an impact. Even the most existential and faraway anger-inducing events can inspire local reactions, like reaching out to elected officials, attending protests, or donating to charitable organizations, Parrott says. In the case of climate change, for example, how can your skills and passions be best put to use in your community? “The healthy response is to figure out, what are the little things I can control here, even if they’re small?” Martin says. “I personally can’t fix climate change, but I can take small steps, and I can feel good about knowing I took those small steps.”
Be strategic with your reactions to anger. Recall the instances where you angered someone else: How did they address their feelings with you? Were they successful? “Berating is often not the first strategy that comes to mind,” Parrott says. In the past, if a friend was upset by your frequently canceling plans and expressed their disappointment in a measured way, you may consider this an effective strategy for discussing anger when you’re on the other side. “Think of a person who has some justifiable anger and I am the target of that,” Parrott continues. “How would they behave in a way that might actually persuade me to rectify the situation?”
Take time to cool off before acting
Don’t act on this anger action list while in the throes of intense emotion. Review your docket of actions a day later to see what issues can be mitigated in a more balanced way, Lerner says. Rope in a neutral third party who can point out whether you’re justified in your anger in the first place and suggest other appropriate courses of action.
For example, instead of cutting off a friend immediately after they made an insulting joke, again, write down the reasons you felt slighted or inflamed. How could you prevent feeling that way again short of breaking up with a pal? If you feel justified in your anger, you could discuss with the friend why the comment upset you and how you’d like to move forward. “It’s often more helpful to talk about how something made you feel rather than describing what’s wrong with them,” Parrott says. “It leaves them a little bit of an opening to say, ‘Oh, my God, I didn’t realize it was coming across that way.’ It gives them a bit of an out, socially, that makes it more likely that they’ll be able to back off and do what you want them to do.”
It’s worth taking this time to weigh the consequences — to yourself and others — of any potential actions, Martin says. Having a difficult conversation with a friend may be uncomfortable, but it could also strengthen your relationship. Hastily quitting your job after an enraging meeting puts the welfare of you and your family at risk. Also, consider what repercussions your anger would have on the other person, Parrott says. If a client is withholding payment, your speaking out against their practices could have a material impact on their business. By informing your professional network of the client’s attitude toward contractors, the reputation of said client will spread, Parrott says, and people may be reluctant to accept work. Your warning can save other freelancers from the headache of dealing with a difficult client. As a result, the client could struggle to find the best workers — which could inspire them to change their practices.
If you do yearn to act impulsively, Lerner suggests using that energy to complete an item on your idealized wish list of things you hope to do in your spare time. (You know the one: signing up for a volunteer opportunity, picking up trash on your block, apologizing to a friend for forgetting their birthday.) “When you’re mad and you have a few minutes,” Lerner says, “just take something from your list and do it.”
Don’t wait so long your anger fizzles to complacency or you suppress your emotions into obliteration. “You lose the benefits of anger,” Parrott says. Treating anger as a normative and motivating reality allows you to use the feeling to positive ends and not ones of destruction. Which is a healthier way of getting what you want — and limits the number of angry emails in the world.