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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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But let’s say you’re in a relationship, and the hurricane force rises in you. How do you know if it’s healthy anger or destructive rage? “With healthy anger, it’s always about what’s happening now,” says Lee. You might be upset at something your wife said when you were getting ready for work that morning. You express it, you and she discuss it and it’s resolved.

Rage, on the other hand, is an accumulation of feelings about the past. It’s when you’re furious because of what she’s been saying to you every morning for the past two years, and you’ve been making up conversations in your head about it, and furthermore, every time she does it, it triggers decades of stuffed feelings about how your mother mistreated you when you were a child. This is how the hurricane force looks when it’s ready to wreak havoc.

Biochemically, when you are in a state of rage, you’ve moved from your prefrontal lobe “down to your midbrain, where you can only fight, be in flight or freeze,” says Lee. That’s why rage is uncontrollable -- and frightening. But with healthy anger, you’re still in your prefrontal lobe, where capable of managing your responses.

Lee believes healthy anger can bring people closer. “Healthy anger draws people into a conversation,” he explains. “If I express anger appropriately, you’re going to stay open and listen and in the process you’re going to get to know me better.” Many of us have had the classic experience of a lover’s quarrel in which we aired our hurts and allowed ourselves to open vulnerably to our partners. The result can indeed be more intimacy.

Harriet Lerner, psychotherapist and author of the classic, The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships, takes this notion further. “Healthy anger requires us to define ourselves and to be the best expert on what values, priorities and desires are not negotiable under relationship pressures,” she says. “It requires us to change our part in the relationship patterns from which our anger springs.”

Lerner sees healthy anger as a powerful tool for increasing respect and fulfillment in relationships with loved ones. “Healthy anger requires self-focus, so we can observe and change our part in the patterns that keep us stuck, rather than dissipating our energy trying to change another person who doesn’t want to change.”

No question about it: using anger to improve personal relationships can be a challenge. But what about those guys in the Stockholm study, the ones who suppressed their anger in the workplace and thereby doubled their risk of heart attack? Is there an appropriate way to funnel anger on the job? Professional mediator Vivian Scott, author of Conflict Resolution at Work for Dummies, actually sees workplace anger as “an opportunity to make something better. The company has the opportunity to benefit if people can take on the attitude that the conflict can be a symptom of something that can be improved -- a process, a system or an overall attitude.”

And what would healthy anger look like in the workplace? Whether one’s angry at a boss or at an employee, the expression of anger at work is tricky, with both perceived and real risks. It’s important, says Scott, to “remember that the other person is not against you -- she’s just for herself. Take a second and logically put yourself in her shoes. Ask rather than assume. Say something like, ‘I noticed we’ve been having some challenges lately and I’m wondering if you can help me understand what’s happening so we could work together to find a solution that would work for both of us.’ It works at all levels.”

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