Repressed anger is a serious danger to your health. Numerous studies have found links between an inability to express anger and debilitating diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis and more. Bottled up emotions can cause chronic stress, taxing your system in a way you don’t realize until it’s too late.
However, advice like “express yourself when you’re angry” comes with a major caveat: If you lash out in rage and abuse the people around you, you are going to cause more conflict, stress, and possible long-term emotional repercussions in the targets of your anger. Instead, the key to well-being is to learn to express your anger in a healthy manner.
“Unhealthy expressions of anger can be really damaging,” says Kristen Costa, lead faculty for behavioral sciences at Northeastern University. “We all get angry, but there’s a way to stop it from wreaking harm on others and ourselves. Sometimes we are afraid to bring things up, and then they get out of hand and the insults start flying! When we constantly overreact in angry or abusive ways, we end up damaging our relationships. Angry outbursts are a slippery slope — they can be difficult patterns to stop.”
Oftentimes, when you react in the heat of the moment, not only does the tension become elevated, but the true problem you need to resolve gets lost.
“When we’re upset, our adrenaline is pumping, and the first instinct is to want to get everything off our chest and solve the problem immediately,” Costa says. “This often proves to be a huge mistake. We say things we regret, and we close the door on actually getting to the heart of the problem.”
If you are in a conflict with another person, it can be productive to remove yourself from the situation until you feel less heated. Know what strategies work best for you to blow off some steam. Some people like to go for a walk, or to exercise, write in a journal, vent to a friend or practice deep breathing exercises. Many people practice mindful meditation to allow themselves to watch and experience their anger without clinging to it or allowing it to control them.
No matter what you do, allow yourself the space to be angry without trying to deny it or feeling like you are failing yourself somehow.
“It’s important to validate the experience of anger as a normal human emotion,” says Gregory Nawalanic, a psychologist who practices in the Los Angeles area. “The important distinction to make is that anger is a secondary emotion, which is to say that nobody just gets angry. They typically become angry in response to one of five primary emotions, namely: sadness, embarrassment, frustration, anxiety, or fear.”
When you figure out the root emotion behind the anger, you are better prepared to address whatever the problem is.
“Anger does nothing to resolve the underlying issue, and impulsively acting on anger typically produces more problems,” says Nawalanic. “The trick is getting an individual to take the time to realize which of these emotions is underlying the anger before they’ve hurled a right hook at somebody or destroyed valuable property either belonging to them or someone else and earning a trip to jail without passing GO or collecting $200.”
One key, says psychologist Paul Coleman, is to not buck against reality by insisting that a triggering situation should not be happening.
“The reality is that the other person DID say or do whatever it was they said or did,” Coleman says. “So angry folks need to practice thinking ‘I don’t like what is happening BUT I ACCEPT IT.’”
One you accept the situation, you can deal with it in a calmer manner.
“Acceptance is not passivity,” says Coleman. “If you cannot find your car keys and you emotionally accept that fact, you will still look for them. But you will be less agitated because you are accepting the reality of the moment.”
True expression of anger doesn’t even mean yelling and screaming, which is actually an abnormal release of emotion, according to Dr. Gabor Maté in his book When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection. Both repression and rage come from fear of genuinely expressing anger, Maté says.
“Repression and discharge are two sides of the same coin,” he writes. “Both represent fear and anxiety, and for that reason, both trigger physiological stress responses regardless of what we consciously feel or do not feel.”
Anger provides important information about a threat of loss or an invasion of boundaries.
“I am greatly empowered without harming anyone if I permit myself to experience the anger and to contemplate what may have triggered it,” Maté writes. “I may choose to display my anger as necessary in words or in deeds, but I do not need to act it out in a driven fashion and uncontrolled rage. Healthy anger leaves the individual, not the unbridled emotion in charge.”
Another tip that many mental health professionals mention is that when you’re ready to address your anger with the person who caused it, use “I” statements and state your feelings directly.
“For example, ‘I felt hurt when you did not help me with that task, and I got angry because I really could have used your assistance in that moment,’” says child and adolescent psychologist Laura Paret. “This is a direct and healthy expression of angry feelings and would be likely to elicit a productive conversation.”
Try to avoid putting each other on the defensive.
“When one is feeling like they need to defend themselves, they will be far less receptive to hearing what you need to say and understanding your point of view,” Paret says. “For example, ‘You never want to help me with that task because you are lazy,’ is much less likely to elicit an open conversation. Confrontation of this nature without resolution can often further fuel angry feelings rather than attenuating them.”
With practice, you can learn how to channel your anger in a positive way and use it to ask for what you need from a partner, coworker or other person close to you. Always remember, the anger itself is not a bad or negative thing — it’s how you express it that matters.