Reprint of my article published by HealthyPlace.com on Aug. 20th
Your heart races, your body temperature rises, and you feel ready for an outburst that expresses how angry you really are. You may be tempted to hold back your anger, but this may not always be the best approach. It turns out anger has a beneficial side too. This emotion is often hidden or repressed by some, but it can be helpful and even healthy.
Psychologists examining the expression of anger are finding that it can help resolve disputes when combined with a proactive approach. When two people use anger to work towards a solution, rather than to vent about how they’ve been wronged, anger is actually a positive emotion. Such an approach can strengthen a relationship as it allows one party to evaluate and express how he feels. The other party benefits from this as well. When not played out in a dramatic manner, he gets a better understanding of his partner’s view of the problem and the two can start towards a negotiation that may lead to compromise. “This is in contrast to the negative long-term consequences described by people who felt they were victimized and yet hid their anger from the perpetrator” say Baumeister, Stillwell and Wotman in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 59, No. 5).
Everyday anger is beneficial outside the home as well. It can decrease feelings of uncertainty on the national front. In 2001, Dr. Larissa Tiedens of Stanford University published a paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology citing four studies that found evidence for people granting more status to politicians who express anger than to politicians who express sadness or guilt. Just think back to the events following 9/11 and recall the leadership with which Rudolph Giuliani, then mayor of New York empowered the people to feel less fearful. President George W. Bush also used anger to rally the troops and empower people following the attack. A clear expression of anger is seen as powerful and prepares people for action.
Additionally, feelings of certainty and optimism as a positive outcome following anger were evidenced and measured in scientific literature by social psychologists Jennifer Lerner, Roxanna Gonzales, Deborah Small and Baruch Fischoff from Carnegie Mellon University. Their study, published in the March, 2003 issue of Psychological Science, examined the responses of the public during two stages following the 9/11 attacks. The first stage took place nine days following the attacks. As a baseline, 1786 people were assessed regarding their feelings about the event and their levels of stress, anxiety and desire for revenge. Two months later, as stage two of their study, Lerner and colleagues primed 973 participants to feel angry, fearful or sad. The different groups had different reactions. More specifically, those primed to feel angry were found to give more realistic and optimistic assessments of 25 terrorist-related risks compared to the participants primed to feel fearful. In this way, angry people feel more in control and have a higher degree of certainty than fearful people.
Anger can also help promote justice without resorting to violence. In fact, anger reduces violence, even when it precedes it. Imagine how different the world would be without the angry words and actions that brought about change when Martin Luther King Jr. fought for civil rights in the 1960’s or when women were advocating for the right to vote and be seen as equals in society. In this way, anger motivates change.
In addition to reducing domestic and national disputes, improving relationships, and lubricating negotiations, anger can also be beneficial to health. When used constructively, anger benefits heart patients who have problems with hostility. According to one analysis by Davidson and colleagues published in Health Psychology (2000), anger helps these patients maintain their resting blood pressure. Constructive anger is a way to resolve a problem when the person expressing it is justified and presents his frustrations to the wrongdoer. By contrast, anger is not constructive, that is to say it is destructive, when it is used to confront someone or vent bad feelings.
We can all benefit from recognizing the positive sides of anger. Anger puts us in touch with our point of view, allows us to feel more in control and can be the first step towards negotiating a solution to a problem. It motivates, alleviates uncertainty, reduces violence and hostility and can even be good for your heart. So don’t be so quick to discount anger as a negative emotion or hide it behind a ‘grin and bear it’ attitude.
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