The Uses and Limits of Anger
This is a recap of an article
by Carol Travis which appeared in the magazine Psychology
Today. This such an important topic and her research so
invaluable that I have taken the liberty of reporting it so that
this article and her work might reach a wider audience through
the Internet. The proper credits are given at the foot of the
all about anyway?
We are all normally born
with the capacity to get angry and the ability to express that
anger. The baby sure knows how to get our attention when upset.
Crying and yelling does it. That's the way a baby lets us know
its needs. For infants, getting angry is quite obviously their
only way of communicating their needs. As grownups we sometimes
act like a baby with this difference. For an adult anger may
not always be a good way of communicating. Nor is it always considered
a bad thing to do, except in most cases of physical or verbal
Then what's the
problem with anger?
The problem with anger is twofold. What
are you to do when feeling frustrated or angry? Howare
you to show our frustration or anger without abusing your health
or without losing your friends or alienating your colleagues.
Showing that you are angry may sometimes be the only way you
can get your message across to others. It may be the only way
you can let people really understand that they have intruded
upon your space, that you are feeling physically or emotionally
abused or intimidated.
Is it emotionally
healthy to be angry, no matter how you look at it?
How can you look at it? Leaving moral issues
aside, consider current psychological theory. Some therapists
believe that suppressed anger is the real cause of all sexual
disorders, marital problems, psychosomatic illnesses, depression,
suicide and all abnormal or deviant behaviors. Is it true, as
some suggest, that behind every calm, serene person there lurks
a furious part screaming to get out? Some therapists think so.
I don't agree with them. Others treat anger as if it were a fixed
amount of energy manifesting in the body in such a way that if
you pinch it in here, it's likely to show up somewhere else.
You may act it out in bad dreams, neuroses, hysterical paralysis,
hostile jokes, stomach aches or headaches. This theory seems
far-fetched. The fact is that no one knows for sure exactly what
angry feelings really say about anyone. It's not clear.
we do about our angry feelings?
Should you pretend you're not angry? Should you let others know
you're angry? Is physically or verbally venting your feelings
healthy, as long as you do no physical harm to anyone? Is suppressing
hostile feelings actually dangerous to your health? If you are
helped or allowed to express your feelings, will you in some
way benefit? Is there value in hitting, throwing or breaking
something when feeling frustrated? Some say yes, some say no.
Others say sometimes... under special circumstances.
Why not vent
Outbursts of anger may only raise the general noise level life
without necessarily resolving the difficulties causing your angry
feelings. Taking your frustrations out on others may only increase
your level of frustration, not get rid of it. Screaming, throwing
things, shouting recriminations will not always get rid of your
frustration or make you feel better.
when you are feeling frustrated or angry?
For one thing, your body
chemistry normally changes, your blood pressure increases, the
immune system is stressed. Body tension and stress levels are
greatly heightened. Could severe stressful feelings of anger
lead to some kind of personality disorder? It's doubtful that
angry feelings alone could create a personality disorder, or
do internal physiological damage, or make anyone physically ill.
The real cause of any such difficulty is the way you handle
stress, your ability to control the negative effects of stress.
Angry feelings do not by themselves cause harmful stress for
everyone. Some are not affected at all by such feelings, much
to the frustration of others.
So what do people
report about their angry feelings?
Some have mixed feelings
about letting others know their feelings. They report feeling
anxious about having shown their feelings of anger. In fact,
they blame themselves for getting angry. Others simply shrug
off the whole experience of getting angry without giving it another
thought. According to the evidence, if you keep your feelings
of anger to yourself, you have as good a chance of coping with
physiological stress as you would if you vented your anger.
Are people consistent
in how they handle their frustrations?
The answer is no. There
are times when some people are likely to show their angry feelings.
At other times they are more likely to keep their feelings of
anger to themselves. It depends who is involved and what's at
stake. There might even be a different effect on blood pressure,
especially if the person has high blood pressure. Also a lot
depends upon their reason for feeling angry, their age, race,
gender and social class. For example, how might you feel if a
police officer shouts at you for something that was not your
fault or if a homeowner refuses to sell your dream house to you
because of your race or religion or ethnic origin, or if your
boss blows up at you for no apparent good reason. In which situation
do you imagine you might be likely to show your anger? Does it
matter to your stress level how you react in these situations?
It all depends. It's very personal and subject to a quirky psychological
fact called individual differences.
Does fear always
control how we handle frustration and anger?
Probably. Should you allow
yourself to be unfairly treated? Not if you can do anything about
it. What could you do? Well, confronting a supervisor or a police
officer or reporting them to their superiors may have serious
anxiety-producing effects with certain risks of their own. Yet,
expressing your angry feelings toward a prejudiced homeowner
or rude police officer, who are forbidden by law to discriminate
or behave unprofessionally, is another matter altogether. Righteous
anger usually makes people feel good. In such circumstances,
people who kept quiet about their anger, or who felt guilty about
expressing their angry feelings, had the highest level of elevated
blood pressure. But, again, not everyone. Only those who had
certain macho beliefs about what it means to be manly.
Can you do anything
positive about your angry feelings?
Much depends upon what you
are willing to do. One suggestion is to use time out to reflect
on the situation. Reflection as a technique has proved the most
healthy way to react when faced with frustration or anger. Wait
until both you and the angry person who offended you have calmed
down. Then try to reason with the other person. This approach
can be learned by anyone regardless of genetic makeup, race,
gender, class or religion.
What about the
frustration of dealing with teenagers and young adults?
The advice here is consider
it a problem only when being manipulated in ways terribly destructive
to family harmony and health. A Tough Love program may be appropriate
in such a situation. Support groups are widespread and can be
contacted through the yellow pages of your telephone directory
or by calling your local Office of Community Services.
Do the experts
advise us to ventilate our anger when dealing with frustration?
The answer is no. It's not
supported by social and psychological research. Ventilating anger
is often a self-destructive and self-defeating behavior. If expressing
your anger will make you feel more angry and solidify your feelings
of anger, making you into a hostile person, then it would be
better to control your angry feelings. Keep quiet about momentary
irritations. Use distraction. Think about something pleasant
or do something pleasant. This is more likely to make you feel
better faster than ventilating your anger.
Is this always
the best advice?
Not at all. The problem
is the inner struggle you may face when you try to decide what's
best. What to do... to show your feelings of anger or hide the
fact that you are angry? Constant and excessive feelings of rage
are not good for you. It's best to constructively resolve this
inner conflict. Several emotions are usually involved
like guilt, shame or worry. As long as you have no such conflicting
emotions, you are likely to feel okay no matter what you do.
Constant anxiety about what to do or what you did isn't good
for you. Neither is getting depressed about the situation a good
solution. Physical illness can be caused by suppressed feelings
of anger, by inner conflict, or by indecisiveness.
What about suffering
the frustration of others in silence, feeling like a martyr?
This is not recommended.
First , find the cause of the irritation or anger. Then, decide
what's at stake. Finally, select a strategy to improve the situation.
To get angry just to "get it off one's chest" seldom
solves the problem that's causing the frustration or feelings
of anger. Most often doing this creates harmful stress, which
can cause illness, especially heart disease, disorders of the
nervous or the digestive system, and a weakening of the immune
system. Silent sulking is a deadly and unhealthy weapon. Bearing
a grudge, nursing an indignity, or letting your anger out on
someone in devious ways by forgetting to do something
you promised to do, or holding back sexually, or sulking irritably
around the house will be more harmful for your own health than
it is likely to be for the other person's health.
What can you
do instead of nursing a grudge?
If you try to figure out
how to get back at someone, you are in our head talking to yourself.
Now your feelings of anger will be simmering just below the surface.
You are now the one who is going to put a strain on your heart,
your nervous system, your stomach, your colon, or your immune
system. Holding elaborate head conversations is not going to
reduce levels of frustration. The potentially unhealthy effects
of repressed anger will likely result.
Is there any
constructive purpose to be given the ability to get angry?
Angry feelings seem to be
a signal that you need to set limits or clarify boundaries. It
is important to be clear to yourself and to others what is acceptable
to you and what is not. Angry feelings send the message, "so
far and no further" or "enough is enough." If
your grievance is not openly dealt with, it will not matter if
you show you are angry or hide the fact. Ventilating anger directly
may be okay when it restores your sense of control, when it reduces
the rush of adrenaline that accompanies a threatening or offending
situation and when it gets you to feel that you are not helpless
or powerless. Showing your anger might be okay in some instances
if the other person needs to be convinced that you are really
angry and if both parties can agree what to do about the situation.
Then, you have established boundaries for the future about how
you want to be treated and what is likely to cause you to become
Are there certain
personality types more prone to frustration?
Of course there are. Common
sense tells so. Research supports common sense. For example,
Type A personalities (achievement-driven, highly competitive
types) seem to be more susceptible to heart disease than other
types. Anger is usually their problem. Type A's constantly feel
pressured for time, swear impatiently at delays and tend to become
aggressive or threaten violence at the slightest provocation.
Other personality types are more easygoing. Not only are Type
A's more at risk of heart disease, but men at risk of heart disease
are also more likely to direct their anger outward, become angry
more often, and often try to control the world. Type A's who
do manage to keep their angry feelings to themselves and suppress
their hostility also seem more likely to develop heart disease
than those Type A's who show their anger and hostility.
What about other
types, the Non-type A's?
If you are such a type,
more easygoing, should you hide or show your anger. It depends.
Can you do anything about the situation? Are you likely to get
fired? Are you likely to lose a friend or break up your marriage?
The answer to these questions should determine your strategy.
Do women deal
with frustration differently from men?
Definitely. Most women seem
to deal with anger by trying to calm the situation and act friendly,
maybe by smiling or making gestures of accommodation. This approach
can be and often is at the cost of their own rights. Men, on
the other hand, tend to deal with their angry feelings with aggressive
acts by lashing out at someone or by engaging in sports. These
gender differences seem to be learned.
What if we have
learned stereotyped ways of dealing with frustration?
We can unlearn them by practicing
new ways of reacting? Some therapists think this is not only
possible, but desirable. Assertiveness Training, for example,
was specifically designed to teach more powerful and more constructive
ways of coping with frustration than simply getting angry. A
well run Assertiveness Training program can be very helpful in
learning how to cope with your angry feelings while dealing positively
with your frustrations, especially as a result of being badly
treated. Remember that the real problem is not your feelings
here, but how to get what you want without letting your anger
get the best of you.
And in conclusion?
If you are the kind of person
who typically is quick to get angry or easily frustrated, here
are some healthier things you can do rather than suffering the
harmful effects of angry outbursts, your own or others. You could
learn yoga techniques to help relax your heart rate and slow
your breathing, or Transcendental Meditation...any method of
meditation for that matter, Relaxation Training, Tai Chi, and
any practices of the sort can also be helpful in coping with
frustration and developing feelings of self-confidence and self-worth.
The general advice is to do everything you can to minimize the
need to resolve your frustrations by resorting to outbursts of
and recommended reading:
I am indebted for most of
this article to Carol Travis in her article "Anger Diffused,"
published in Psychology Today, the November 1982 issue.
Also, I owe a special debt of thanks to my students who in my
counseling sessions with them have taught me much about dealing
with frustration and anger. A rich source of information about
the emotions from a holistic perspective is Rays of the Dawn
by Dr. Thurman Fleet. Copies are available at a nominal cost
from the Concept-Therapy
Institute, a nonprofit educational foundation, through
their toll free telephone number 1-800-531-5626.