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Anger: Harmful or Helpful?

When was the last time you were grateful for being angry? Were you ever thankful to have gotten angry? I often hear that anger is not good. Anger is destructive. Anger is selfish. Anger is harmful. Anger is blinding. But what if anger can be good and helpful? What if we could be honest when we are angry and learn more about ourselves and our relationships? Anger, like all our other feelings, is good and it is helpful in the process of revealing what is in our hearts. Feelings, including anger, give us information to help us decipher what it is we need to heal, grow, and develop as human beings.  

Anger has a function and a purpose in our lives. Anger is an emotion we feel when we are threatened and need to move toward the threat to protect. It functions by signaling to us that we need to stand up for ourselves because a threat is encroaching upon our values, morals, and beliefs. Anger is like the fire alarm going off when what is important to us is no longer safe.  

When we become destructive and harmful with our anger, we add to anger’s “socially bad reputation”. Therefore, when we begin to manage our responses to anger so that we can feel and engage anger without becoming destructive, then we can begin to use anger to do some serious heart work.  

Physiologically, our bodies have a parasympathetic system to help us rest and relax and a sympathetic system to help us respond to threats by fighting back or fleeing away. Anger is the fight response in our bodies’ sympathetic system. In other words, when we get angry our bodies are physically ready to fight. Our heart rate increases, blood flow goes to major muscle groups, and our midbrain takes over the frontal cortex. Neurologically, we lose our ability to rationally and logically: think, organize, plan, engage in relationships, and so on. We start to act without thinking on a more primitive level. This becomes a problem socially when we no longer need to fight for our lives.  

Anger will continue to have a bad reputation if we continue having this problem. However, there are ways to re-train our bodies so that we can be angry without being destructive. Here’s what I would propose:  

  • First, identify the physiological symptoms you experience when you are angry and/or destructive. This could be clenched fists, tight jawline, stomping feet, sweating, GI issues, rapid heart rate, and so on.  
  • Second, find a way to take some time to de-escalate and calm your body down, practicing de-escalation tools like deep breathing and muscle relaxation.  
  • Third, ask “why am I feeling angry and what am I needing?” Some people like to just think about it, some people like to write it out with or without prompts, and some people need to talk it out with someone. Find what works for you.  
  • Fourth, verbally ask for what you need. Remember to do this in a safe relationship.  
  • Fifth, work on reengaging what or who triggered you in the first place in a calm and engaging manner.  
  • When you get re-triggered, start over from step one.  

Keep in mind, although these steps help give us some direction, getting to a place where we can feel angry and not be destructive is a process and it takes time. There will be mess ups, resistance, and it will be hard. So, keep in mind that feeling angry is okay and good; being destructive is not okay. As Ephesians 4:26-27 says, “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (NIV). 

Nicole Cho, LMHC-A is a Meier Clinics therapist at the Bothell, WA clinic. Not only is she a therapist who works with all ages, Ms. Cho is also an intake specialist. When she is not at work, she enjoys doing art and spending time with her friends and family.