Is it Healthy to Get Angry?

Dr. David J. Koehn Psychologist Fort Myers, Florida

Dr. David Koehn is a psychologist practicing in Fort Myers, FL. Dr. Koehn specializes in the treatment of mental health problems and helps people to cope with their mental illnesses. As a psychologist, Dr. Koehn evaluates and treats patients through a variety of methods, most typically being psychotherapy or talk therapy.... more

Is it Healthy to Get Angry?


Dr. David J. Koehn


A lot has been written on this topic and here is a short treatise on it. Overall, it's okay to get angry. The problem is how you react to it with your attitude and behavior that can cause problems. In my practice, I have employed a 14 module program to help patients with their anger management. The modules include:

  1. Introduction and Self-assessment
  2. Learning to Rest Your Mind
  3. Using Muscles and Imagination to Relax
  4. Anger is an Emotion
  5. Anger: the Good, the Bad, and Ugly
  6. Danger Spots: Anger Cues and Triggering Events
  7. Just Before the Storm: Feelings and Thoughts in a Flash
  8. Challenging Yourself- Are Automatic Thoughts Automatically Right
  9. Showing Style: How do you Express Your Anger
  10. Cycles of Anger
  11. Freeing Yourself from Rage – Part 1
  12. Freeing Yourself from Rage – Part 2
  13. Taking Responsibility and Self-Assessment
  14. Your Long-Term Anger Management Plan

A very creative treatise of emotions is illustrated in the film Inside Out, especially portraying the emotion of being angry.

Why Being Angry Is Okay (and Even Helpful)

You might think anger should be suppressed, but it can be a motivating force. Anger is an emotion we are all familiar with. We have all felt it at times either as a fleeting annoyance or as full-fledged rage. When we feel anger, we experience this feeling physically and emotionally. Physically, our bodies react with visceral responses such as increases in heart rate, rapid breathing, perspiration, and our ancestral “fight” or flight” instinct kicks in. Anger is a necessity for our survival—it provides us with the drive and ability to defend ourselves. Luckily, not every circumstance warrants such a severe reaction, and it would be destructive to lash out at every person that caused us to feel anger or every situation that irritates us. This does not mean we should deny our feelings of anger. It’s really okay to be angry.

Problems develop when our anger is not effectively expressed, and derailed anger can cause significant harm to ourselves, others, or both. We all use a variety of psychological defenses to cope with anger, some healthy and some not so healthy. The two most common approaches to dealing with anger are repression and aggression.

When we repress our anger we engage in behaviors that are passive, evasive, and obsessive. Repression can develop into emotional manipulation, self-blame, and self-sacrifice. Defenses and behaviors of this kind prevent us from directly confronting our negative emotions and/or the source of our anger. This can be a slippery slope since repressed anger can easily develop into depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and contribute to drug and alcohol abuse.

Individuals who have aggressive anger are often described as “hotheads.” They have difficulty modulating strong negative emotions and they have a low tolerance for frustration. Common life annoyances, inconveniences, and unexpected changes in routine cause exaggerated feelings of anger. Bullying, being physically destructive to self or others, and overly punitive reactions, such as refusing to forgive people that contributed to your anger, are all forms of aggressive anger. Aggressive anger is a serious concern since it can have a real potential to negatively impact important personal and professional relationships.

No one sails through life without being touched by anger. Situations will arise where we will feel we have been unjustly treated or unplanned events will happen that require us to change our expected life course. This is why it is important to acknowledge and understand what causes us to get angry and how to constructively resolve it. Below are a few tips to help you cope with anger:

1. Simplify your life. If you find you are quick to get irritable or angry when you feel frustrated and overwhelmed, simplifying your life should help. Evaluate what responsibilities you can give up so you have fewer self-imposed triggers.

2. Work on improving your communication skills. Angry people tend to jump to conclusions before they have all the facts. Learn to listen to other people by slowing down yourself and not responding too quickly when angry.

3. Own your anger. If you cope with anger by repressing it, learn to identify when you feel anger and allow yourself to experience this emotion. Individuals that repress their anger often feel powerless but when they acknowledge their anger and express it in an effective way they feel empowered.

4. Make personal time for yourself. Schedule time during your day to relax. We all get weighed down and irritated by our daily responsibilities. Making the time to relax by doing deep breathing exercises, meditation, and/or regular exercise helps reduce stress in general and improves our ability to better cope with those unexpected stressful situations.

To reiterate, "Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die." When I first heard that quote (often wrongly attributed to Buddha), I thought it was shrewd advice. I thought it meant that anger was a poisonous emotion, one we should try to get rid of.

Science does seem to make a case for avoiding anger. Anger has been associated with an increased risk of hypertension and worse pain management. For people with mental health conditions, those who also have pathological levels of anger also have higher levels of suicidality and self-harm.

Our culture views anger this way, too. The internet is littered with self-help communities preaching to let go of anger, sharing quotable advice like, "If another can easily anger you, it means you are off-balance within yourself." Or, "Anger doesn’t solve anything. It builds nothing, but can destroy everything." Even, "Anger is your biggest enemy. Control it."

All this is to say it’s clear that we not only fear anger but condemn it as a bad emotion, even a sign of weakness. In fact, our beliefs about anger sneak their way into the way we hold prejudices—our society has dismissed voices calling for social change by labeling people "pathologically angry." Psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl wrote about this in his book Protest Psychosis, which details how Black Americans protesting for civil rights in the mid-to-late 20th century were diagnosed with (and medicated for) schizophrenia.

This societal-level gas lighting is still present today. Even former First Lady Michelle Obama recounted in her autobiography how she has felt reduced to "Angry Black Woman" by her husband’s critics. The two-sided beast of current political thinking has evolved into a very angry society. Just observe the response to black lives matter or the recent attack on the Capital. On the flip side, we praise those who don’t show their anger as "well-bred," "intelligent," and "sophisticated." We’ve upheld whole groups of people who tend not to show anger as model citizens.

To summarize, Anger is an emotion, not a behavior. First, let’s bring some light to an often misunderstood concept: Anger is not a behavior, it’s an emotion. It’s a threat-activated neurophysiological arousal response, which means it’s created when a threat triggers the brain to send out a rallying cry to the body, putting the troops on high alert. The amygdala in your brain starts the call to battle. Then a cascade of brain and body events leads to adrenaline and cortisol pumping through the bloodstream, an increased heart rate, tensed muscles, heightened and narrowed attention, and a facial expression that flashes like a warning sign.

Acting aggressively isn’t mentioned anywhere in the definition of anger. That’s because anger is not a behavior; it’s not the same as hostility, violence, or aggression. Those words describe what people do; anger describes how people feel. While anger can activate aggressive behavior, it doesn’t always and doesn’t have to. For example, you can feel mad that someone cut you in line for show tickets without flipping them the finger. 

You can also hurt someone without being angry at all. For example, people who commit terrible sex crimes can be perfectly cool and calculated in the way they stalk and harass their victims. This difference between anger and aggression is crucial. Anger is an evolutionarily hardwired, physiological, and automatic cascade in the body. Aggression is an action exercised by a person’s free will. When we recognize that, we can respect the emotion of anger even as we condemn the behavior of violence.

Anger is a valid and useful emotion. Emotions are big exclamation points that our brains hold up to get our attention when something important is happening, or when a problem needs to be solved. Fear warns us about danger, grief tells us to seek support, joy tells us that we should continue doing whatever it is that makes us feel good. 

Anger is the same. It tells us that injustice is being enacted, or that we need to take action to ensure the survival of our body and our integrity. People can steal, assault, cheat, bully, and oppress without an ounce of anger. But without anger, the victims would shrug and continue to endure injustice. So, when you feel anger, that’s okay. It’s your brain’s way of keeping you safe. You can, and should, investigate whatever triggered your anger and use your wise mind to evaluate the facts and decide on the best actions. But whatever those turn out to be, the initial spark of anger is always allowed. 

Being aggressive or suppressing anger is unhealthy. Remember the studies I mentioned showing that anger is associated with health problems? When we look closely at the research, it turns out to not be so cut and dry. For example, studies that examine links between anger and health problems (like between anger and hypertension) tend to find that frequently behaving aggressively and habitually repressing anger are associated with hypertension and coronary heart disease. Remember how anger is an emotion, but aggression and stewing are behaviors? This means researchers are really finding that behaving in an aggressive way and bottling up anger are linked to heart disease. On the other hand, merely experiencing anger and describing the experience does not cause cardiovascular changes that increase disease risk. It raises cortisol, but that's only a problem if it’s prolonged and chronic.

Anger is the tip of the iceberg. When we blame anger for our problems, we may be missing the point. In reality, anger and fear often go hand in hand. In fact, anger is often a secondary emotion that only arises when a person continues to feel unsafe. So when researchers measure whether someone is habitually angry, they also tap into whether they might be habitually afraid, vulnerable, sad, or anxious. When scientists look at the biological consequences of anger versus other emotions side-by-side, it becomes clear that anxiety and sadness are what cause inflammation, not anger. 

Anger is motivating. We tend to think of anger as a negative emotion, but it’s certainly got a positive twist. While it’s true that anger often feels unpleasant, research shows that our brains and bodies get activated almost as if we’re pumped up. When we feel angry, our brain’s electrical signals show an “approach” activation, similar to when we feel positive emotions like joy. Our faces, too, betray our excitement. The orbicularis oculi are muscles under the eyes that automatically activate when we smile, and you can spot a fake smile if these muscles don’t move. It turns out that when we're angry, these muscles twitch too.

Don’t get me wrong: This doesn’t mean that anger feels good. It means that anger, like joy, is an approach emotion instead of a withdrawal one. It motivates us rather than makes us retreat. Between the approach orientation and the physiological arousal (the racing heart, tense muscles, focused attention), anger makes us ready to act.

Use anger for good.  So, where do we land on anger? Is anger a destructive force of violence? No, violence is a destructive force of violence. Anger is a motivating force, of which violence is only one of many options for expressing it. Is anger a poison that ruins our health? No, it’s a natural, valid emotion that responds to threats and injustice, and if expressed in a reasonable way, does not harm our health.

So, how can we use anger productively? Science says that we should heed its rallying cry because it tells us something must change. It's okay to feel angry. When we communicate it clearly and let its motivating force fan our passion and guide our conscience, we can use anger to incite positive change.

Maybe you should be angry. Anger is a good emotion that sometimes goes badly. Perhaps your flight is considerably delayed; the team you've supported for years is getting humiliated on the field; your insurance company has rejected a claim for a ridiculous reason; or, you saw a provocative text on your partner's cell phone. In any case, you're angry.

Anger deserves appreciation. Designed to produce action in response to the violation of social norms or to remedy situations that are wrong, anger alerts you to circumstances that are unjust and tells you that you're having a reaction to something that should not be as it is. Often anger is conceptualized as a disruptive emotional force, but it is meant to be an adaptive internal signal that cues self-protective action. Actually, anger is a good emotion that sometimes is misunderstood or irrationally misused.

Getting caught up in how this emotion makes you feel and what it causes you to think may be part of the problem when an expression of anger goes badly. When anger is triggered, your sympathetic nervous system creates arousal in the form of physical agitation, muscle tension, and strength that prepares your body for action. Blood pressure, body temperature, and heart rate increase--you feel hot. The impulse related to what you feel is to strike out at someone or something. Situations that elicit anger demand that you are physically ready to appear aggressive. Anger is designed to protect the self, and, in doing so, results in a greater willingness to take risks (Lerner & Keltner, 2001; Lerner & Tiedens, 2006). In order to accommodate what anger makes you feel, your corresponding thoughts are negative and this cognitive restructuring helps you to carry out the actions required.

It's important to pay attention to what exactly is triggering your anger and to protect yourself accordingly. In some situations expressing anger, rather than inhibiting it, might be counterproductive. Suppose someone you love or respect is emotionally hurtful to you. Your anger might jeopardize the relationship, especially if you want to lash out, getaway, or make the other person experience guilt for how they made you feel. If you express your anger the focus might then become your angry reaction and not how the other person triggered it. In such a situation your anger is simply informing you to protect yourself from someone who is hurting you. But the importance of remaining attached to the person who is hurtful may obscure the fact that the person to whom you are attached is hurtful. Your anger may be trying to tell you so. In such a situation, the expression of hurt or sadness may be more productive in resolving the issue than expressing anger.

A situation in which you experienced an offense to your sense of self may leave you with repetitively triggered anger whenever that situation comes to mind, whether you were passed over for a promotion, betrayed, cheated, or hurt in an intimate relationship, among many other possibilities. Your emotional system is simply doing its job reminding you to protect yourself or find a solution. But like a recurring nightmare, you may not be able to extract this anger from your mind until you understand why it is being triggered, figure out what you can do differently now or in the future, or simply succeed in finding a happy ending in your favor that lets you rest.

The cognitive consequence of anger in response to being morally offended is seen in the complex relationship between anger and empathy. When you are angry your empathy is automatically diminished for the person who is the object of your anger. What your anger is doing is rallying resources, both physical and cognitive, to stop someone who is doing whatever it is that may be threatening to you. A perceived injustice requires action and necessitates that you are not inhibited about hurting someone else. Anger suppresses the inhibition to empathize so that you can carry out the necessary interaction. Empathizing with the other will keep you from doing what needs to be done in order to protect yourself, and is akin to making excuses for behavior that has hurt you. Anger will cut off your empathy for their pain and help you to focus on your own self-protection. Even so, how you express your anger is also critical to self-preservation since exaggerated, inappropriate, or maladaptive expressions will not allow the recipient to accept your message.

Does getting back at someone who made you angry actually help you? The emotion of anger results in a willingness to endure the consequences of punishing someone who has betrayed you (de Quervain et al., 2004; O'Gorman, Wilson, & Miller, 2005). However, researchers have found that thinking about punishing someone, or even punishing them, will cause you to continue focusing on your anger towards that person (Carlsmith, Wilson, & Gilbert, 2008). So wanting revenge or seeking it can keep you from moving on and truly regaining the sense of yourself that was lost in the betrayal. It is highly likely that wanting revenge when you are wronged is a result of humiliation or shame that accompanies an injustice (see a previous blog on "Shame: A Concealed, Contagious, and Dangerous Emotion"). Although the relationship between anger and shame is widely recognized, recent research has considered when anger is shame-related and when it is not (Hejdenberg, J. & Andrews, B., 2011). Although it is often assumed that having an angry temperament is related to shame, the study disconfirmed that effect across genders. According to the findings, shame is related to anger that is felt after specific provocation, such as criticism. Thus it is important to determine what triggered your angry response, consider other emotions that may be hiding behind your anger, and recognize that, ultimately, you determine your own sense of self.

Any emotion taken to an unhealthy level is dysfunctional, whether it's sadness, guilt, or excitement. Anger management has to do with having sensible reactions to situations that elicit anger, and an ability to sublimate or deal in ways that are healthy. It's not that you shouldn't be angry, but anger does not have to result in expressed aggression. Being able to cognitively consider consequences, recognize a course of action that would resolve the situation, and respond in healthy, regulated ways are essential to using your emotions for the self-protective and informational purpose for which they are intended.