The Benefits of Anger
The general public considers anger to be a destructive emotion that has little to no practical purpose. In most social groups, it is regarded as a character flaw. Therefore, the expectation is that it should be eliminated. One of the most common goals for counseling that my clients verbalize is they never want to get angry again. They want to get rid of it altogether. Unfortunately, this expectation is neither healthy nor possible. It limits the role this emotion has on the quality of our mental health. It also denies the multitude of adaptive roles and benefits that anger plays in our everyday life. Although some of the benefits only have a temporary aid, they are still crucial to our ability to function and interact with others.
Not knowing or denying the survival function of anger skews our understanding of this emotion. It prevents us from managing it effectively and adapting it as a source of growth. Some of the benefits are closely linked to our innate ability to adapt to our external environment. It also allows us to maintain an inner equilibrium vital to our overall mental and emotional wellbeing.
Since anger continues to be perceived in a negative light, the following list attempts to shed a more accurate understanding of the role this emotion has for all of us.
1. Anger Provides Information about Environmental Circumstances
Anger, like any other primary human emotion, communicates vital information about each situation, event, or person we encounter. It signals how safe or unsafe the circumstances we face are. It tells us when to protect or defend ourselves from a real or perceived threat and/or attack. It lets us know when the environment is not conductive or safe to what we need in our life or what we would like to accomplish.
2. Anger Releases Tension and Reduces Stress
Our current life is full of various forms of stress. We have to cope with busy/hectic schedules, worries about finances, our future, our health, the welfare of our families and children. We experience unmet needs, discomfort, and life disappointments. Often, we are physically and mentally overwhelmed and exhausted. This stress leads to a physiological build-up of tension throughout our body. This tension usually finds an outlet where it can be released. The more stressors we face, the more unpleasant and stronger the physiological pressure is going to be. For most people, this release comes from getting angry and experiencing a blow-up or getting into an argument. Blow-ups temporarily drain the body of this tension, and the aftermath is usually a sense of relief—as if a weight has lifted off one’s body. Therefore, it is important to remember that stress leads to tension; tension leads to anger; and through an anger outburst, we often feel a sense of relief.
The following linear model explains the process we go through when getting angry due to stress.
Stress leads to Tension. Tension leads to ‘Anger Signaling.’ An anger outburst leads to a physiological discharge of tension. The end result is 1). Relief from Stress, and 2.) Temporary Resolution.
3. Anger Helps Us Communicate to Ourselves and The External World
Through anger, we communicate to the external world the condition of our internal one. It speaks to what we do not communicate in a calm and rational way. It tells those around us that we are unhappy, dissatisfied, unfulfilled, unacknowledged, or unloved. Anger also communicates with our inner-self by telling us what does not work anymore. It signals when vital aspects of our inner word and identity are missing or have been lost. It tells us we need to look inwardly and explore our emotional pain. Maybe it is an unresolved issue from our childhood, a meaningful relationship that is experiencing problems, or something in the future that scares us, and we are not ready to deal with it.
Anger is a warning system regarding the quality of our inner life. It is just like the engine light in your car. The engine light tells us something is not right in how the engine functions. Usually, with our vehicles, we take them in and make sure we do the work needed to prolong their life. Unfortunately, we tend to ignore our anger “light” and risk impairing our mental health and personal relationships.
4. Anger Protects Us From Harm
Anger is part of the ‘fight-flight’ response that helps us survive and adapt to challenges. Anger is the fight component of the fight-flight response. It channels the body’s energy towards taking action in defending oneself from an actual or perceived threat. This can look and take different forms. If we are physically in danger, we can attack the source of the threat to protect ourselves. In these hyper-stressful situations, our bodies will create enough energy to help us resist or overcome the danger. A more challenging situation is when the threat is perceived.
The ‘fight-flight’ response has an evolutionary component, and it is a physiological reaction we inherited from our ancestors. Their lives revolved constantly around protecting themselves from real threatening situations. Some examples would be dealing frequently with wildlife, not having the means to protect themselves from bad weather. Our current lives revolve less around dealing with actual threatening events and more with perceived threats. Some examples include worrying about paying bills, wondering about the security of the job and reliability of the car we drive, worrying if the spouse is trustworthy and faithful. None of the less, the mind assesses these worrying thoughts as threats therefore creating same physical tension as if we are facing a dangerous animal attacking us.
Another common scenario of perceived threat is when two partners engage in domestic violence. Unfortunately, due to ongoing pain, tension, and conflict, the two partners no longer see each other as safe but as enemies. The result of such perception leads to physically hitting each other to protect or defend.
Sometimes, people can hijack our emotions with their behavior or words. When this happens, the anger we feel can be a useful tool to set boundaries and redefine goals or priorities. For example, if we become resentful with friends or family members for having to continually rescue them, feeling anger is a good sign we need to pull back. If we respond with a “No,” and/or set strict conditions on future interventions, we are taking back control over our emotions (anger) by establishing firm boundaries with those around us.
If life seems hectic and stressful, anger can signal that we are trying to get too much done. In this case, anger could lead us to restructure our priorities and responsibilities by eliminating what we can, delegating responsibilities to others, declaring new boundaries with demanding people, or giving them a firm and honest, “No.”
5. Anger Is a Catalyst for Change and New Behavior
Anger can be a motivating behavior that prompts us to do something when we feel hurt, stuck, unhappy, scared, or discouraged. Due to the adrenaline that is secreted when we become angry, we can harness that energy into a powerful force to overcome obstacles and conquer challenges. Recent studies in the field of anger management have shown that anger is a powerful personal motivator. If we see that accomplishing a specific goal will be beneficial to us, we tend to want it more when we are angry.
6. Anger Hides Emotional Pain
Anger is commonly described as a secondary emotion. This means that it never occurs first, although most people would state otherwise. A common observation clients have about themselves is that they go from ‘0 to 100’ without knowing what has happened. This is due to the built up of underlying feelings (what we call primary feelings) they are not aware of. Therefore, anger is used to protect ourselves from underlying pain and vulnerable emotions. Feelings such as fear, guilt, shame, loss, rejection, failure, resentment, and disappointment are often hidden under the protective layer of being angry.
This is particularly true for people who grew up in a dysfunctional family and experienced significant trauma in their life. They learned to cope with the ongoing emotional pain by displaying anger. As a child, anger helped them make sense or protect themselves from situations that had no logical explanation and occurred without them being able to predict, avoid or control.
When used to mask our emotional pain (or painful memories), anger provides a feeling of being in control when life feels out of control.
7. Anger Gets Us Attention
Most of us revert to using anger as a mean of getting the attention of those around us. We tend to do this when we feel ‘our voice’ is not being heard or taken into consideration. No one likes to feel left out or that they lack value. As social beings, we have the innate desire to be part of something bigger than us and have a sense of belonging or connection. We want to know that our presence benefits those around us and that our input contributes to the welfare of the group.
If we feel left out or ignored, we tend to raise our voice. The act of being loud will always catch people’s attention. People listen or pay attention more when anger is present, then in its absence. For those receiving our ‘anger signal,’ their immediate reaction is to take into consideration what is being said and to address our concern/problem with a more direct approach.
This is something some of us do without recognizing where it comes from, while others are more intentional about it. Either way, cautious is required in justifying this behavior. Using anger as a means to get attention is extremely hurtful to those around and damaging to personal relationships. People will act and be different around you, will avoid being direct and honest in their opinion, and will fear and resent you. Eventually, they will grow tired of it and start discounting all together what you have to say because it lost its value.
8. Anger Helps Change People
This benefit is strongly linked to the previous. As discussed above, when we are angry, people pay attention to us. It also affects how people will behave. In the presence of someone who is angry, the natural reaction of those around is to be cautious, and carefully assess what is happening. Their reaction is to protect themselves from the angry person. Therefore, most of us will alter our behavior and change to placate and please those around. This is an adaptive response to threat, but in the long term, it has negative consequences in family and relationship dynamics. When one person frequently has to change or modify their behavior (their true-self), to placate or accommodate the ‘angry‘ partner, that relationship will become unhealthy.Summary of Roles and Benefits of Anger
As we discovered with each of these benefits, anger has an adaptive role and helps us navigate challenges we encounter in our lives. However, for those of us who struggle with anger issues daily, this can also be used as a self-inventory scale in identifying why anger has become a ‘default setting.’ This can be the ground for self-exploration and reaching out for help in terms of coping better with life. Those around us do not need to pay the price if we struggle with underlying pain that is masked through our anger tantrums. If we feel unheard in our family, learning about yourself and those you live with can help improve your communication skills. If you resort to anger in order to change your children or life partner, counseling can help you relate to others better and meet your own needs in healthier ways.
Please understand that these benefits are not an excuse to justify your anger and how you cope with it. It is a means of providing education and a different way of looking at anger to better help oneself.