How to make anger work for you

Anger is an emotion none of us can avoid, in the same way we can’t avoid feeling anxious about a job interview, happy when sharing a joke with friends or hurt when someone we love lets us down. It’s a natural, understandable and sometimes useful reaction to certain situations.

But it’s something we often feel we need to mask, supress or downplay to avoid being associated with the ugly, wild and aggressive reputation the emotion holds. This is mainly due to the fact that anger can often lead to self-destructive thoughts and behaviours, aggression towards others and significant stress to the holder of the emotion and those around them.

So, what are some of the positive aspect of anger and how can we use it to our advantage when managed constructively?

PsyBlog presents 5 psychological benefits of anger:

  1. Anger can be a motivating force change
    Constructive anger can push us forward to achieve goals and make changes we see as important in the face of problems and barriers. This can motivate us for personal goals but also motivates societies to stand up against injustice, push for social change and build better futures for their communities.
  2. Anger can lead to more optimise
    Compared to fear, anger helps to increase a person’s sense of control over their future as they are more likely to feel they can take action to change things they are unhappy with. It can be empowering and create hope at difficult times.
  3. Anger can benefit relationships
    By expressing our anger, in a justifiable and solutions focused way, to a loved one when they have wronged or hurt us, it helps to make them aware of the problem and be able to work with us to prevent it from happening again.
  4. Anger supports greater self-insight
    If we pay attention to when we get angry and the reasons why, we can use that information to improve our lives. Anger can motivate self-change.
  5. Anger can reduce violence
    Anger is often the biggest indicator of brewing violence and, therefore, a useful social cue for others to step in and placate and calm the situation to avoid escalation.

The benefits, however, will only be felt when anger is expressed in a way that is justified and proportionate to the wrongdoing, and is used as a spring board to problem solving.

On the other hand, as we have all experienced how anger can also be very destructive, it needs to be used with caution as it can be one of the hardest emotions to control once released.

  • Destructive effects of anger can include:
    Thoughts – Feeling angry can interfere with our ability to think clearly and rationally and steals our attention away from other issues. Anger is sustained and increased through rumination, leaving us in an exhausting vicious cycle.
  • Physical response – Frequent or persistent anger keeps us in a chronic state of tension and arousal – putting significant stress on our body and affecting our health.
  • Behaviours – Argue, abuse, hit, blame or withdraw. Unless we are in physical danger this behaviour is inappropriate and unhelpful and causes more problems than it solves. It can alienate us as people will become wary or scared of us and will reduce our ability to negotiate or problem solve as it puts other people on the defensive.

So, what can we do to channel our emotions of anger away from the destructive and towards the constructive?

Choose to let go of your anger when a problem has been solved or is unsolvable:

  • In comparison to other negative emotions we often want to keep hold of our anger particularly when we feel wronged by another but who is suffering? In the long run, it is only you that is harmed by your anger – we are suffering along with the person we are directing our anger at.

Goal-directed thinking

  • Does thinking the way I do help me to feel good or to achieve my goals? If anger isn’t supporting our goal achievement or wellbeing, its’ time to redirect the emotion.

Identify and change anger-producing cognitions:

  • The SHOULDS – Of all the thinking patterns that lead to human unhappiness, it is the ‘shoulds’ that are the most pervasive. These reflect our expectations of how people ought to behave and how the world ought to be.
    o My friend should be supportive. My wife should want the same things as I do. The trains should run on time.
    o These above statements can make us feel angry as we hold them as absolute truths rather than preferences. The world will never conform to our rigid rules.
  • Justice and fair play – Injustices exist within every society, every family, and every workplace. The truth is lots of things are not fair and often there’s nothing that we can do about it. Focus on changing the things we can and accepting the things we can’t. Life is full of injustice and from time to time accept that you will get your share.
  • Black and white thinking – “It’s my way or not at all”
  • Blaming – blaming others for our own pain simply fuels our anger and makes it harder to let go. We need to accept we live in an imperfect world filled with imperfect people. Other people behaviour in accordance with their own beliefs and values not ours.
  • Empathy: we are all just trying to live
    o Forgiveness is not an occasional act it is a permanent attitude (Martin Luther King Jr)
    o It’s hard to understand the thoughts and motives of people who say or do things we don’t like. Develop empathy for almost anyone, where we can see their vulnerabilities and understand how things are for them.

Learn to diffuse anger to increase control:
o Time out – Gives us time to calm down, sort out our feelings and if necessary plan a strategy. Have prepared time out activities if you are going into a potentially anger provoking situation. It could be as simple as counting to 10, taking 10 deep breathes or a long hot bath.
o Thought stopping – Catch ourselves in the process of ruminating and shout out STOP in our head or out loud. Then turn your mind to a pleasant fantasy you have prepared for 30-60 seconds (a positive memory, a beautiful place you have been etc.). Practice and it will become more automatic.
o Talk about it – write a letter
o Exercise

Anger, like all emotions, is complicated and can be uncomfortable and scary to experience, but, like all emotions, is unavoidable and part of being human. Of course, anger reactions vary greatly from person to person but we can all benefit from learning how to manage and use the emotion for our benefits, rather than allowing it to cause suffering to others and most often ourselves.

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