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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.

It’s the 1980s, and I am sitting in the Beverly Hills living room of a major 1950s television star, alongside my romantic and sometimes writing partner. I have obtained a magazine assignment for us to write about this international celebrity, secured an interview with the retired grande dame herself, done the bulk of the research, created a list of questions, and organized them to ensure a smooth conversational flow. But when the moment comes to push “start” on the tape recorder, my partner launches into the interview, while I clam up and my brain goes blank. I make myself invisible; he runs the whole show.

Later, I transcribe the interview as well as several others, do more than half of the writing and virtually all of the rewriting, and turn the story in to our editor. My partner brings up the question of the order in which our names will appear on the piece. I know I deserve the first byline, but he’s not offering, and as a lifelong good Catholic girl, it is impossible for me to claim my due. Besides, I don’t want to piss him off; he has a temper that frightens me.

My insides feel simultaneously numb and sick, like there’s a knife I am twisting through my own intestines. Not looking him in the eye, I say he should have the first byline. Incapable of expressing my anger, I end up punishing myself.

Historically, many societies have viewed anger as “bad” -- an emotion that must be suppressed or concealed, lest it do terrible damage when it’s unleashed. But it’s natural to feel anger in the course of our daily lives, whether it’s triggered by trivial annoyances (another driver cuts you off at the intersection) or by serious issues (you’re passed over for a well-earned promotion because of nepotism). What to do with all that anger before it boils over?

Fortuntately, recent research in the behavioral and biological sciences suggests that, when recognized and channeled, anger can improve health, enhance intimacy, further social justice and spur creativity. “Anger is the emotional energy within each of us that rises when something needs to change,” says therapist and author Tina Tessina. “If you act on the need to create change, your ­anger can be channeled effectively. But if it’s not redirected to something effective, your frustration will build, sometimes to hurricane force.”

Anger can indeed feel like a hurricane -- and, if unregulated, can be just as destructive to physical and mental health. According to a 2010 University of Valencia study, this universal human emotion raises heart rate and arterial tension, which can stress the body, and increases testosterone production, preparing us for aggression.

Clinical psychologist Leon Seltzer notes, “Anger is the one emotion that mobilizes every organ and muscle group.” The body responds to what it perceives as a threat, activating our primal fight-or-flight response. Repeated stimulation of fight-or-flight can weaken the immune system and exhaust the body. High levels of anger have been found to destroy T-cells, a type of white blood cell that helps protect us from cancer and other diseases. Studies have also linked unregulated anger to headaches, colds and flu, as well as to increased risks of stroke, hypertension, gastrointestinal illnesses, and coronary artery disease.

The psychological effects of prolonged or uncontrolled anger are just as harmful. Anger has been associated with increased risk taking, poor decision making and substance misuse, as well as with such mental health problems as depression and self-harm. Many people cite anger as the emotion most likely to have a negative effect on personal relationships.

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