Is anger really all that bad?
I’ve been seeing a lot of memes and comments on social media about the health dangers of anger for those with chronic disease. This idea that any one emotion is “bad” has me very concerned. It is not healthy to suppress our emotions. Of course, we must respond appropriately. That is not the same as assigning a moral value to something that is an automatic and uncontrollable fact of human neurology. Emotions occur. They are ALL perfectly normal. It is healthy to feel any and all emotions, including anger.
It is a fascinating emotion. Unlike so many other emotions, anger is almost always a secondary response. We often feel anger only after we’ve already experienced another emotion we don’t want to feel. We can feel anger because we feel ignored, ridiculed, helpless, fearful, or any other emotion. Even the common anger we feel toward stigma has a precursor emotion. Many times it’s humiliation.
The key to a healthy response to anger is in knowing where to direct the energy. There are essentially three options.
#1 – You can let it consume you.
Turning that anger inward is often a toxic precursor to depression. Our thoughts become darker as we increase self-blame. Even anger in response to the behavior of others can get turned in on ourselves. This happens when we begin thinking that we deserve to be treated badly. We start attaching unfavorable adjectives to our self-concept. Before long, we are unable to acknowledge even one positive trait. We begin to believe there is no hope, that nothing will ever change, that we are powerless to help ourselves. Anger toward self is a deadly poison.
#2 – You can use it to harm others.
Feeling anger toward another person is also very normal. This kind of anger drives us to take action. We feel the urge to do something to right the perceived wrong. When we become angry at others, it is often because of unrealized expectations. The other person behaved in ways that were contrary to our expectations of them. The outward expression of this anger is often, “But he/she should have known better!” The energy of this anger, if left unchecked, fuels the fires of revenge and may lead to an ever-escalating feud.
#3 – You can transform it.
Anger is a stimulating emotion. It contains powerful energy that demands to be expressed. As with any power source, it can be used in destructive ways. It can also be used for the creation and growth of something positive. When we recognize the anger, we have the opportunity to redirect that energy. We can channel it to produce a positive change.
Most often, when I experience anger, it is because I feel helpless to enact change. My perspective gets clouded and I stop seeing all my options. Sometimes I need to vent a little anger like a release valve before I can see clearly enough to understand my choices. Because anger is an energizing emotion, venting requires the release of energy.
Experience has taught me that it isn’t so helpful to meditate, relax, or try to “calm down”. A more effective route has been aerobic exercise, a cleaning marathon, or stream of consciousness writing. Any of these allows me to release the energy without filtering my thoughts or actions. After a few hours, I am actually able to put that anger energy to productive use. Whatever situation triggered my angry feelings is now something I can face. It doesn’t seem so ominous, unfair, or out-of-control. Angry energy can now be utilized to fuel the action needed to solve my problem.
My migraine symptoms didn’t start getting better until I got angry…
- at society for all the stigma directed at migraine.
- at a healthcare system that appeared indifferent.
- at my past doctors for not knowing how to help me.
- at loved ones, bosses, and friends who had ever mistreated me because of migraine.
- at myself for not being able to find the right answers.
None of that did anything except make me irritable, depressed, and eventually suicidal. The change happened when I got angry enough to do something about it. No one else was going to help me, so I had to find a way to help myself. The positive results didn’t happen overnight, so I stayed angry for a long time. I needed it to give me the strength to keep pushing forward through years of treatment failures.
Sometimes I still get angry – mostly on behalf of other migraineurs who are still suffering. But now I have an outlet for that energy.
Your turn: How do you redirect your anger energy? Do you have any creative strategies for transforming it?