For a couple of decades psychologists thought you needed to “release your anger,” by punching pillows, giving a primal scream, or ripping up paper. The belief was based on intuition. We really didn’t have any science to tell us whether that was helping or not. It just felt right.
But for most of the last two decades psychological studies seemed to support the other side. Studies showed anger gets stronger when you punch pillows. By slowing down your breathing and pondering solutions (rather than revenge imagery), angry feelings dissipate better than they do if you try to “release them.”
It might not surprise you to learn that some family therapists and mental health therapists still believe there is value to releasing your anger. And one thing everyone agrees on is this. Suppressing anger is unhealthy.
No one is an advocate for taking a gun to school and shooting a bunch of people. No one is an advocate for cheating on your partner just to experience the glee of revenge. But you do need to respect anger as something very real inside of you. It’s something that needs your attention. Otherwise, it has a way of coming out sideways. It has a way of damaging your health, emotional well-being, and relationships.
So how do you express anger in a healthy way? To answer that question, let’s start with the purpose of anger. Anger mobilizes action. Anger emerges just before we say, “Enough!” and then do something about it.
Anger arises within our emotional world under two circumstances:
(1) When we are being repeatedly blocked from achieving an important goal, or…
(2) When an expectation is violated (usually an expectation we hold sacred like the expectation that we should be treated fairly).
Virtually anything that has ever made you angry fits into one of those two criteria. Yet we rarely think of it that way. Anger has a way of narrowing our focus, limiting our ability to recognize its true source.
Anger is helpful because it gets us to take action. We finally quit a job where we have been disrespected and pushed down one time too many, or we bypass fear to finally stick up for ourselves when being bullied. In these circumstances, anger has served its purpose by mobilizing action. But most of the waves of anger we feel cause unproductive damage to ourselves or others. That’s because often suppress it until it reaches a crescendo.
In relationships, anger serves an important purpose. It alerts us to a need to take action. But to take productive action, you need to be aware of anger before it reaches a crescendo. That way you can channel it productively.
There is a ton of psychological research suggesting we get healthier physically and mentally when we journal about things that bother us. College students literally get fewer colds when they are in the randomized group of research subjects who journal about frustrations (rather than in the group told to journal about random things like sporting events).
Why is that? Why are we healthier when we express our anger in words? Some believe it’s because emotions are essentially energy. The word “emotion” is about movement. When that movement is suppressed, it creates a form of stress. Journaling allows that mental energy to be expressed. And equally important is that journaling simultaneously allows us to have insights.
Specifically, we have insights about what to do about it. Writing slows us down and allows us to see more clearly what our true feelings are, as well as the options we have. We end up making better choices. Therefore, we end up feeling less stress. Anger has served its purpose. It moved you to pay attention and take action to figure out what you need.
You’re going to get angry at your partner. The more you care about someone, the greater their power to hurt you in ways that make you angry. But anger does not need to be a destructive force. Allow anger to be the primal emotion that it is. Pay attention to it, and let it be your teacher. Sometimes it will reveal truth that will help you decide what to do.