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Purpose of the emotion anger: how anger can actually be helpful

December 7, 2022 - 13 min read

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What is anger?

How anger can be helpful

The right way to express anger

Putting out the fire

Understanding anger for the future

Think about the last time you were really angry. 

Regardless of what made you mad, you probably felt hot, tense, and overwhelmed. Anger is part of our fight-or-flight system, with the evolutionary purpose of fueling us to handle conflict. If we experience aggression or threats, our survival instincts recommend reacting with equal force. 

But anger is a powerful emotion, and if we can learn to control it, we can channel the negative energy into something beneficial. 

This article will guide you through what anger is and how it can create negative and positive changes in your life. Plus, we'll explain how to express your anger in healthy ways to strengthen your communication and conflict-resolution skills.

What is anger?

Let's begin with a definition of anger from the American Psychological Association (APA). Anger is a basic emotion that arises from frustration, injustice, or injury. It's caused by external triggers like interactions with people or stressors like traffic, or internal events, like remembering past memories or personal issues.

Here's how anger affects the brain

  1. Your anger activates the amygdala, which then activates the hypothalamus
  2. The hypothalamus signals to your pituitary gland to release hormones
  3. The pituitary gland activates your adrenal glands, which will release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol
  4. The stress hormones flow through your body and impact your systems from head to toe

This adrenaline rush might fuel irrational behaviors and cloud judgment as your body tries to prepare you for a fight. In this state, your body protects itself by elevating your blood pressure and body temperature. These symptoms of anger may cause you to feel:

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  • Discomfort in your stomach
  • Hot or sweaty
  • Flushed 
  • Tightness in your chest 
  • Shaky hands 
  • Tension in your hands, jaw, or shoulders 
  • Headaches 
  • A racing heart rate

The urge to express our anger or react to the adrenaline can also manifest in different ways, including:

  • Yelling or shouting about something
  • Cursing 
  • Feeling spiteful or disdainful toward someone 
  • Hitting or throwing things

When anger overwhelms your system, controlling your reactions is difficult. This often leads to you lashing out, whether that’s throwing something across the room, punching your steering wheel, or saying hurtful things to someone. Stress hormones can also limit your ability to remember the details of arguments by interfering with your judgment. 

Anger could be anything from mild irritation to true aggression or rage. The feeling can spark at just about anything, from someone cutting ahead of you in line to a deeply personal betrayal. Regardless of what provokes your anger, your body reacts the same way. 

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How anger can be helpful

Expressing an emotion like anger in an uncontrolled way has the potential to negatively impact your relationships. 

But anger is helpful. Apart from the fact that you need to experience unpleasant emotions like anger to be truly content, the adrenaline and stress hormones can be channeled into productivity, functioning like eustress

Here are six benefits of anger:

  1. Increases your motivation: The fight-or-flight hormones of anger increase your motivation to move through a situation. If your boss assigns a deadline you find unreasonable, which makes you angry, you might be motivated to work to meet it to prove you're capable of taking on more important tasks.
  2. Helps you set boundaries: As you work through conflict, you could learn to set new boundaries with others to prevent yourself from feeling angry again. That might mean avoiding a certain coworker or finding a less congested commute — but knowing what’s best for your body and mind will help you structure a life that benefits you.
  3. Works to resolve conflict: Holding in your feelings doesn't relieve any tension or stress — and neither does yelling at someone you love. But when you learn to express your anger healthily and respectfully, you can better resolve conflict in your professional and personal relationships.

    This leads you to develop a deeper understanding of others and strengthen conflict resolution skills, whether at work or home.
  4. Helps you meet your needs: Anger alerts you that something doesn't make you feel content and that it needs to change. It could show you that you value honesty in your relationships, and moving forward, you'll work to meet that need because it's meaningful to you.
  5. Leads to self-improvement: Even if you don't consider yourself an angry person, you might start practicing anger management strategies. These strategies could lead to self-improvement and show you how much locus of control you have in your life.
  6. Increases self-awareness: Why do you feel angry? What makes you have these feelings of anger in the first place? You'll increase your self-awareness when you start to reflect on these things. You'll also learn more about yourself, like what lifestyle you want to live or what kind of career would be the most meaningful for you.

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The right way to express anger

Anger will only be helpful to you if you know how to control it. You might feel angry at work but not know how to communicate your angry feelings professionally and respectfully to your boss, leading to tension and poor working relationships. And if your partner frustrates you and your expressions of anger aren't healthy, it could strain your relationship. 

That's why learning healthy ways to express anger will help you better control your emotions and situation. Here are five tips to help you express anger more healthily with others:

1. Think about the impact of your words

In the heat of the moment, you might feel like you want to let out every word that comes to mind. But words are powerful, and they have the potential to hurt those around you. Being mindful of your word choice will help you avoid saying harmful things and keep your professional and personal relationships intact. 

2. Come up with solutions

It's good to express your anger, but what will you do about it? While you’re expressing your emotions, consider thinking of solutions to create positive change. Think of ways you could avoid becoming angry in the future. You could practice becoming more patient or listening to other people's perspectives to better understand them. 

3. Be honest

This isn't the time to sugar-coat your emotions. Speak up for yourself and be honest about your feelings. Your loved ones and friends might not know what upsets you because you’re never truthful about it. But being honest doesn't mean having no filter. Choose your phrasing carefully, and remember that your words have power.

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4. Practice accountability

Your angry feelings are yours alone. Being accountable means accepting your emotions as your own and working through them rather than shifting the blame onto someone or something else.

Consider using "I" statements when you talk about what makes you have an emotional response like this instead of “you.” Instead of “You made me feel this way,” say “I felt this way” to keep your thoughts and feelings at the forefront.

5. Watch your tone

Your emotional response is going to be emotional — there's no way around it. Your anger could be accompanied by feelings of betrayal, resentment, or frustration, and your tone might reflect that.

Watching your tone means being mindful of how loud you speak and how respectfully your words come out. Rather than shouting, which might encourage more aggressive behavior, try to slow down your speech. It'll help you regain your sense of control.

Putting out the fire

Sometimes your anger might overwhelm you, and you need space to calm your mind and body down. This doesn't mean that you’re failing at controlling your anger — it means you recognize your need to devote time to finding peace. And you can always revisit communicating your thoughts and problem-solving after you find your calm again.

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Here are five ways to help you feel calm again if your anger becomes too much:

  1. Take deep breaths: Slow down your breathing and focus on each breath you take to help defuse your angry feelings.
  2. Go for a walk: Go out on a walk to help take your mind off your anger. Any exercise benefits your mental health — especially if it’s outdoors. 
  3. Be present: Practice some mindfulness and meditation to bring you back to the present and focus on what's meaningful to you.
  4. Ask for time off: Take time off work to focus on your health and well-being rather than adding more stress and pressure. Overworking is frustrating, and you might need time away to lower your stress levels and stay calm.  
  5. Seek professional help: See a mental health professional if you feel like you're struggling to understand and control your anger. They will help you work through your issues by providing strategies and support.

Understanding anger for the future

Anger has a reputation for being a negative emotion we need to avoid. But now you know that the purpose of the emotion anger isn't all negative — if you're willing to learn how to control it.

Because anger brings on a fight-or-flight response, you could always choose to run away from the cause behind your anger. But understanding why you're angry leads to valuable insights about your values, what boundaries you need, and the goals you want to set. Doing this will deepen your self-awareness and benefit your well-being.

Next time you feel anger, don't look at it as something terrible you should hide away. Instead, embrace that emotion and question where it comes from. Understanding your anger is a key part of unlocking your true potential and living a peaceful life.

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Published December 7, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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