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How Anger Can Improve Health, Enhance Intimacy, Spur Creativity, Even Inspire Social Change

In my small town, one of my friends was so angry about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that she created a community ride-share board to lessen our dependence on oil.

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In my case, the mere idea of anger was so terrifying that I would spend a lifetime numbing myself to its effects. It didn’t help that I was raised in the Catholic Church, which from early Christian times has defined anger as one of the Seven Deadly Sins (punishable by an eternity in Hell). I am also from a Puerto Rican family, in which women typically learn to be submissive to men. But when I stuffed my anger, it didn’t go away. In fact, as I later learned, I was in the thrall of what psychologists call passive anger, meaning that the anger came out in other ways -- such as self-sacrifice, self-sabotage and self-blame.

When anger arises, it’s easy to feel cornered, powerless, even scared. How to deal with your best friend who’s been neglecting you since she fell in love? What to do with your impossibly hormonal teenager when he’s acting out for the umpteenth time? We don’t do ourselves any favors when we don’t deal with our anger. Many studies have shown the damaging effects that unexpressed anger can have. Most recently, a study by Stockholm’s Stress Research Institute found that heart attack risks doubled in men who did not express their anger when they felt they had been unfairly treated in their jobs.

Scientists from both the behavioral and biological fields agree that anger is a normal human response. The issue is what to do with it. If uncontrolled anger can destroy our T-cells and unexpressed anger might lead to heart attacks, where’s the healthy middle ground?

A few months after the interview incident, I’m in the ladies’ room at the library and catch a glimpse of a severely depressed woman. Suddenly, I realize it’s me in the mirror. Shocked at my visible sadness, I go home and tell my partner we need to get into couples counseling. He refuses to “air our dirty laundry,” but I am so unhappy I know I must go to a therapist, even without him.

At my first session, after I’ve wept for an hour, my new therapist startles me with this pronouncement: “Depression is anger turned inward.” Later, a recently divorced girlfriend shares with me a quote by Eric Hoffer: “Anger is the prelude to courage.” I write this down in my journal and look at it, frequently. It strengthens something inside me, bit by bit.

Part of the problem for me was that in my mind, anger was only hurricane force. I had no concept that there might be some other form of anger, something healthier, even useful. Let’s say you’re at a party and you overhear someone make a racial slur that just happens to apply to you. Or what if the nursing home staff repeatedly ­ignores your instructions about your elderly mother’s special dietary needs? How to address these situations in a way that’s not explosive but effective?

My own fearfulness about anger didn’t just come from Catholicism. In many of the world’s spiritual traditions, anger is something to be avoided or quelled. The Qu’ran has many proscriptions against anger, and the Prophet Muhammad said, “The strongest man is the one who, when he gets angry and his face reddens and his hackles rise, is able to defeat his anger.” The Jewish Kabbalah has meditations for healing the soul of anger. In Buddhism, anger is one of the Five Hindrances, negative mental states that interfere with enlightenment.

But men’s movement pioneer John Lee argues that when people talk about anger, what they often mean is rage -- and that anger and rage are two distinct phenomena. “Healthy anger is an emotion that everybody on the planet is going to have and has a right to have,” says the psychotherapist and author of Facing the Fire: Experiencing and Expressing Anger Appropriately and The Anger Solution. “Unhealthy anger, or rage, is an action or behavior that nobody has the right to commit against somebody else. Basically, anger is a feeling. Rage is an action or a behavior that numbs people’s feelings.”

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