Anger gets a bad rap, but it can be an asset, experts say - here's what to do with it

Stock image of man yelling at their phone
Anger is different than rage, and there are ways you can keep things from escalating, experts said. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Madeline Holcombe of CNN

White-hot, violent, cruel, wrathful - the words we associate with anger don't sound so pretty.

"Anger is a particular type of an emotional state that can receive a lot of judgement from ourselves and from other people," said Dr Brett Ford, associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.

It might be an unpleasant emotion to experience, and it might be culturally discouraged, but we need anger, she added.

"The actual experience of anger being deemed as bad is actually, I think, one of the biggest impediments to our emotional processing," said Jaime Mahler, a therapist and trauma specialist based in New York. "You're taking a very useful emotion, and you're squashing it and you're repressing it, and you're saying it doesn't matter."

Evidence has suggested that minority groups and women face particular cultural pressure to tamp down on their anger, Ford said.

Emotions tend to have social expectations, or scripts, she said.  "And anger is one that tends to have quite powerful and prohibitive scripts and norms," Ford added.

While many people may feel the need to resist or hide their anger, these mental health experts are urging the opposite. Anger, they say, is an important tool we should better learn to wield in a kind, healthy and productive way.

And as unpleasant as it may be to feel, the consequences of denying it could be worse, said Deborah Ashway, a licensed clinical mental health counsellor based in New Bern, North Carolina.

"If you grew up learning that you're not allowed… to express anger, after a while, it turns in on itself," Ashway said. "And that turns into guilt."

Anger can inform and protect you

Anger isn't all doom and gloom.

"Our emotions are our highest guidance that we have, you know, that is available to us," Ashway said. "Anger comes up as a warning. Like, 'something's going on here.'"

That flush of anger can alert us to a violation of our values, a feeling of danger, or a sense of neglect, she added.

And add to that, "anger is a protective emotion," said Mahler, author of Toxic Relationship Recovery: Your Guide to Identifying Toxic Partners, Leaving Unhealthy Dynamics, and Healing Emotional Wounds after a Breakup.

When expressed in a constructive way, anger can drive people to stand up for their needs and opinions to be sure they are taken care of, Ashway said.

"It helps us set boundaries. It helps self-preservation. It helps us be assertive and advocate for ourselves. It helps in conflict resolution, if it's managed appropriately," she added.

That drive can also push us to take action about the things we are angry about, whether that is having a difficult conversation with a friend or taking political action, Ford said.

"If something is kind of getting in our way and we need to overcome some sort of obstacle, anger can help provide us with motivation to do that," she said.

When it's no longer just anger

But what about the malice and violence? That is often tied to rage - not anger, Ashway said.

And yes, they are very different.

"Violence is bad. Punching walls is bad. Throwing garbage cans is bad," added Mahler. But in those cases, "we're talking about the outcome of unprocessed anger, not anger in and of itself."

Rage, she said, is old, unprocessed anger.

"Rage is a lot different because it's not serving a healthy purpose anymore. It's more destructive," Ashway said.

If you are angry, you can take a step back, get the information, and make a choice based on your emotions. But enraged people are no longer in control of their emotions anymore, Ashway said.

"You can't really get to that level of emotional expression unless your anger has not been processed for a very long time," Mahler said. "Anger processed can lead to healing but anger unprocessed can lead to violence."

How to process your anger (without fixating)

There is evidence that chronic, intense anger can lead to poor physical and mental health, Ford said. That means that ruminating or letting anger fester can be counterproductive.

"(Emotions) actually aren't meant to be very long lived. They're meant to kind of help us manage a particular moment in our environment," she said.

Which is why it is even more important to stay with the feeling and process it fully, Ford said.

But that's not always possible in the moment of rage, Mahler said. She compared it to someone having a panic attack rather than anxiety.

"You can't really rationalise someone out of panic, you just have to calm their body down," Mahler said. "Same with rage. You just have to calm their body down and get them to a better state of consciousness."

From there, you can start to process the emotion.

Start by letting it in and sitting with it, Ashway said.

Instead of letting it pressurise until it bursts, recognise your feeling without judgement and observe, Mahler said. Even if that means setting a five-minute timer for the period you will allow yourself to feel angry.

"Then the next stage is to try to understand why anger showed up in that particular situation," Mahler said.

"What might be impeding on your energy or thoughts? What are you protecting yourself from? What do you need that isn't being met?" are questions Ashway wants people to ask when observing their anger.

"And then once you're aware of it, you're in control of it. It's no longer going to control you now," she said, adding that is the place from which you can decide how to move forward.