How to Express Your Anger the Right Way
Getting angry can be good for you—if you do it right. Here's how to harness your rage and reap the rewards.
Blowing a fuse
The driver who cuts you off in traffic. The neighbours who don’t pick up after their dog. The insurance company that puts you on hold for an eternity. Situations like these get our blood boiling and our hearts racing and send our stress levels skyrocketing. Anger isn’t a pleasant feeling. But neither is the way many of us deal with it. Some of us bottle up our emotions, while others explode in a wild rage. Both habits have repercussions for our bodies, our minds and our relationships.
Anger may feel uncomfortable, but it’s also normal and healthy. “It gets negative press. A lot of people think they have to get rid of their anger,” says Dr. Patrick Keelan, a registered psychologist in Calgary. “But anger is an emotion built into us to signal that something needs to be addressed.” When we take notice of that signal and actually rectify the problem instead of ignoring it, we’re usually much better for it.
It’s an emotion I’ve felt when my husband and I can’t find accessible parking. He drives a wheelchair-equipped van and needs a wider space to manoeuvre in and out of the vehicle, but spots are typically limited. Two years ago, we were annoyed to discover that our local nursery had narrowed an accessible parking space by using part of it to hold pallets of soil bags. We kept our cool and spoke with the manager, who assured us the space would be cleared.
But when we went back a month later and found the pallets were still there—and that a display of river rocks had been set up beside them—we were furious. I took photos, emailed them to the owners of the business, and explained the problem in a clearly written note, adding, “Your company is violating human rights legislation that prohibits discrimination against store customers who have disabilities.” Just 24 hours later, the obstacles had been removed, and the parking space has remained clear ever since.
Why we’re angry
The physiological changes we experience when we’re angry—the increased blood pressure, the faster breathing, the release of stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol—are set into motion by the amygdala, a sort of first responder in the brain. The process evolved for a reason, says Dr. Diane McIntosh, a psychiatrist in Vancouver. “A number of different biological systems are working in concert to stimulate your fight-or-flight response. You’re going to fight people because you’re angry, or you’re going to run away because you’re afraid.”
In modern society, we don’t usually engage in physical brawls with reckless drivers or inconsiderate dog owners, but that doesn’t mean quashing our emotion. “We can act on our anger appropriately,” says Keelan. “If somebody has done something that bothers me, I can bring that to their attention in a calm, clear way.”
Holding it in causes harm
Unfortunately, many of us—especially women and girls—have been conditioned to keep our reactions hidden. “Anger is one of the so-called seven deadly sins,” explains Dr. Cheryl van Daalen-Smith, an associate professor of nursing and women’s studies at York University in Toronto. “For women, anger is viewed as counter to expectations of being caring and compassionate. It ends up in self-silencing.”
But increasingly, research is demonstrating that stuffing down our anger can lead to damage later, including stress-related diseases like autoimmune conditions. Investigators at the University of Rochester even showed that people who regularly suppress their emotions may have a shorter life span. They’re more likely to die earlier from cancer, for example. McIntosh points out that when your stress response is perpetually activated, your body can become resistant to the anti-inflammatory effects of cortisol, stay in a state of inflammation, and be more prone to developing physical diseases, like diabetes, and mental illness, such as depression.
And if you think you’re sparing your loved ones by bottling up your anger, consider this: “If you keep suppressing it, then you could end up erupting like a volcano,” says McIntosh. Instead of having a conversation earlier on about what’s upsetting you, now you’re in conflict as well as miserable.
Venting can hurt, too
Is it better, then, to scream and holler whenever something makes you mad? You may find that lashing out doesn’t feel any better than pushing it all down. In fact, just as suppressing emotions has negative consequences for our physical and mental health, flying off the handle isn’t so good for us, either.
“Any extreme emotion has physical consequences—headaches, stomach aches, all kinds of stuff,” says Nancy MacDonald, executive director of Family Service of Eastern Nova Scotia and an anger management group leader. A large 2016 study at McMaster University found that we’re more than twice as likely to have a heart attack after an angry outburst. The increased blood pressure and heart rate will put stress on the cardiovascular system, and if there’s already some plaque buildup, the blood flow to the heart may be restricted. MacDonald adds that when we feel ashamed about blowing a gasket, “there’s also a depressive stage that often comes after.”
Not any healthier are the so-called “rage rooms” that are taking hold in some North American cities, where folks are invited to vent their angry feelings by violently smashing stuff in a “safe” environment. They’re advertised as stress relievers, but don’t be fooled. “The theory is that you get the anger out of your system through aggressive actions, and it’s cathartic,” says Keelan. “But the research indicates that when we display our anger aggressively, it can actually increase the intensity of the anger—and increase the likelihood of aggressive actions in the future.”
As for the social consequences, it doesn’t take much imagination to predict how a furious rampage can affect your relationships with your spouse, your kids or your co-workers. It’s one of the reasons why anger gets a bad rap. But we must stop equating it with explosive rage. “Anger is an emotion, and aggression is a behaviour. We need to untether those two things,” says van Daalen-Smith. “Angry feelings have to be expressed, and we need to make it okay for listeners to accept and appreciate women’s expressions of anger.”
Acknowledge your anger
If we shouldn’t bottle up our angry feelings, but aggressive behaviour isn’t healthy either, then how should we handle it when something ticks us off? “The goal isn’t to not feel anger. Emotions are normal,” MacDonald says. But it’s the extreme highs and lows that take a toll, and if you’re able to apply techniques that smooth out some of those peaks and valleys, you can have a gentler ride.
Start by exploring where your feelings are coming from. Anger can be triggered by an irritating situation, but it’s also often precipitated by underlying feelings of fear, anxiety, disappointment and guilt. That’s why anger is often considered a secondary emotion. Maybe you’re furious that your spouse is late, but it’s because you were afraid he’d had a car accident in the bad weather. Being more aware of your primary emotions can help you to reflect on them and recognize the thoughts you’re having.
You can also pay closer attention to your triggers—those daily irritations, such as the long lineups at the grocery store, that you know will set you off. You may not be able to avoid all triggers, but you can prepare yourself by having strategies at the ready. One such tactic is reframing. “Take a step back from that situation and look at it in a different way,” says MacDonald. When I consider that people who block accessible parking spaces don’t realize why those spots need to be wide, I do feel less hostile towards them.
Tips for expressing yourself
There are many ways to express anger without resorting to pummelling someone. Like we tell kindergarteners, use your words. Talking about anger is proven to help us feel better. Researchers are still investigating the mechanisms behind why this works. But brain imaging at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and elsewhere has shown that if, within your own mind, you attach language to your feelings, it can actually calm the activity in the amygdala, that place where the fight-or-flight response is triggered.
Language is especially useful when you’re angry with someone about a specific behaviour. As McIntosh notes, “There is a value to expressing that you don’t like what’s happening, because it’s an opportunity for change.”
You may decide to take a cool-down period before speaking out—this will allow for the effects of the adrenalin to wear off, for you to take time to reflect on what’s really bothering you, and for the person you need to speak with to be receptive. You can do some controlled breathing or find some physical activity to take the edge off. “There’s clear evidence that exercise benefits anxiety and depression, and helps with feelings of anger,” says McIntosh.
When you’re ready to approach the other person, Keelan recommends focusing on the behaviour and why it bothers you, not the person’s character traits. “You’ve got some very valid points you want to bring up to them,” he says. “You want to make sure they get tuned into those, rather than get sidetracked by aggressive behaviour.” Avoid calling the other person names or accusing them of being inconsiderate. Don’t swear, and don’t make overgeneralizations, such as, “You always do this!”
“The basic concept,” says Keelan, “is to bring up your reasonable points to the other person in a manner that is most likely to get a constructive and non-defensive response.”
As for those on the receiving end, remember that there are benefits to acknowledging and trying to understand the other person’s anger—and offering to make a change, if warranted. The other person will be much more likely to bring matters up constructively in the future, rather than hold them in or explode. And in the end, you’ll both be healthier for it.
These practical tips can help ensure you get the most out of therapy.