You may believe that anger is something to be suppressed, but science and psychology tell a different story. Feeling anger is not only okay, but it can be a motivating force for good.
"Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die." As a young adult, when I first heard that quote (often wrongly attributed to Buddha), I thought it was wise. I thought it meant we should try to never be angry because anger is a poisonous emotion.
Science seems to back this up. Anger has been associated with increased risk of hypertension and worse pain management. For people with mental health conditions, those who also have pathological levels of anger also have higher levels of suicidality and self-harm.
Our cultural intuitions match this view of anger too. The Internet’s self-help communities are littered with quotable advice about anger, like, "If another can easily anger you, it means you are off-balance within yourself." Or, "Anger doesn’t solve anything. It builds nothing, but can destroy everything." Even, "Anger is your biggest enemy. Control it."
Our society has dismissed voices calling for social change by labeling people 'pathologically angry.'
These sayings make it clear that we not only fear anger, but we also condemn it as immoral, manipulative, or a sign of weak character. In fact, our beliefs about anger sneak their way into the way we hold prejudices—our society has dismissed voices calling for social change by labeling people "pathologically angry." Psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl wrote about this in his book Protest Psychosis, which details how Black Americans protesting for civil rights in the mid to late 20th century were diagnosed with (and medicated for) schizophrenia.
This societal-level gaslighting still exists. Even after America elected a black president, First Lady Michelle Obama recounted in her autobiography how she has felt reduced to "Angry Black Woman" by her husband’s critics.
Conversely, we praise people who don’t show anger as "well-bred," "intelligent," and "sophisticated." We’ve upheld whole groups of people who tend not to show anger as model citizens. I myself have been one of these Model Minorities—a soft-spoken, frequently-apologizing, high-achieving Asian-American woman.
But I am feeling angry these days. The events that sparked my anger and the deep-rooted social problems they expose are outside the scope of this podcast, partially because I’m not qualified to fully analyze them with the intellectual rigor they deserve.
Anger is not poison; it's fuel.
However, as a psychologist, emotions are my bread-and-butter. And I now realize that my young self’s understanding of one of these emotions was so very wrong—anger is not poison; it's fuel.
A closer look at the science and psychology of anger reveals why it’s a misunderstood emotion, and how we can use it for good:
Anger is an emotion, not a behavior
First, let’s understand what anger is and is not.
Anger is an emotion. It’s a threat-activated neurophysiological arousal response, which means it’s created when a threat triggers the brain to send out a rallying cry to the body, putting the troops on high alert. The amygdala, a brain area we share with all complex animals, starts the rallying cry. Then a cascade of brain and body events leads to adrenaline and cortisol pumping through the bloodstream, an increased heart rate, tensed muscles, heightened and narrowed attention, and a facial expression that flashes like a warning sign.
Anger is not a behavior—it’s not the same as hostility, violence, or aggression.
Notice how the definition of anger does not include acting aggressively. That’s because anger is not a behavior—it’s not the same as hostility, violence, or aggression. Those words describe what people do; anger describes how people feel.
Anger can activate aggressive behavior, but it doesn’t always and doesn’t have to. For example, you can feel mad that someone cut you off in traffic without flipping them the finger. You can be furious about being unfairly treated at work without flipping your boss’s desk.
You can also hurt someone without being angry at all. People who commit sex crimes, for example, can be perfectly cool and calculated in the way they stalk and harass their victims.
This difference between anger and aggression is crucial. Anger is an evolutionarily hardwired, physiological, and automatic cascade in the body. Aggression is an action exercised by a person’s free will. When we recognize that, we can respect the emotion of anger even as we condemn the behavior of violence.
Anger is a valid and useful emotion
Emotions are useful. They are big exclamation points that our brains hold up to get our attention when something important is going on, or when a problem needs to be solved. For example, fear warns us about danger, grief tells us to hunker down and seek support, joy tells us that whatever we’re doing is great and that we should do more of it in the future.
Anger is no exception. It tells us that something isn't right. Either our safety is being threatened, injustice is being enacted, or something else requires action to ensure the survival of our body and our integrity.
People can steal, assault, cheat, bully, and oppress without an ounce of anger. But without anger, the victims would shrug, roll over, and continue to endure injustice to the point of extinction.
Imagine a world without anger. Crime, violence, injustice, and mundane wrongs would still happen. People can steal, assault, cheat, bully, and oppress without an ounce of anger—these acts benefit the perpetrators. But without anger, the victims would shrug, roll over, and continue to endure more and more injustice to the point of extinction.
So, when you feel anger, that’s okay. That’s just your brain doing its job of keeping you and yours safe. You can, and should, investigate whatever triggered your anger and use your wise mind to evaluate the facts and decide on the best actions. But whatever those turn out to be, the initial spark of anger is always allowed.
Being aggressive or suppressing anger is unhealthy
Remember all the studies I mentioned showing that anger is associated with health problems? When we look closely at the research, it turns out not to be so simple.
What researchers are really finding is that behaving in an aggressive way and bottling up anger are linked to heart disease.
For example, studies that examine links between anger and health problems (like between anger and hypertension) tend to find that frequently behaving aggressively and habitually repressing anger are associated with hypertension and coronary heart disease. Remember how anger is an emotion, but aggression and stewing are behaviors? So, what researchers are really finding is that behaving in an aggressive way and bottling up anger are linked to heart disease.
On the other hand, merely experiencing anger and describing the experience does not cause cardiovascular changes that increase disease risk. It raises cortisol, but that's only a problem if it’s prolonged and chronic.
Anger is the tip of the iceberg
When we blame anger for health problems (or other problems), we may be missing the point.
Is it really that the disabled Vietnam War veteran who lives alone has heart disease because he's often angry, or is it that he's lonely and afraid?
In real life, anger and fear often go hand in hand. In fact, anger is often a secondary emotion that only arises when a person continues to feel unsafe. So when researchers measure whether someone is habitually angry, they also tap into whether they might be habitually afraid, vulnerable, sad, or anxious. When scientists look at the biological consequences of anger versus other emotions side-by-side, it becomes clear that anxiety and sadness are what causes inflammation, not anger. So, is it really that the disabled Vietnam War veteran who lives alone has heart disease because he's often angry, or is it that he's lonely and afraid?
Anger is motivating
We almost universally think of anger as a negative emotion. But if so, it's a negative emotion with a positive twist.
While it’s true that anger often feels unpleasant, research shows that our brains and bodies get activated almost as if we’re jazzed up. For example, when we feel angry, our brain’s electrical signals show an “approach” activation, similar to when we feel positive emotions like joy. Our faces, too, betray our excitement. The orbicularis oculi are muscles under the eyes that automatically activate when we smile, and you can spot a fake smile if these muscles don’t move. It turns out that when we're angry, these muscles twitch too.
That doesn’t mean that anger feels joyful. It means that anger, like joy, is an approach emotion instead of a withdrawal one—it motivates us rather than making us retreat. This makes sense. After all, the function of anger is to help us stand our ground, defend ourselves, and seek out positive change. We can’t do that if we pull back the way we do in fear or sadness. Between the approach orientation and the physiological arousal (the racing heart, tense muscles, focused attention), anger makes us ready to act.
Use anger for good
So, what's the verdict on anger? Is anger a destructive force of violence? No—violence is a destructive force of violence, while anger is a motivating force, of which violence is only one of many options for expressing it. Is anger a poison that ruins our health? No—it’s a natural, valid emotion that responds to threats and injustice, and if expressed in a reasonable way, does not harm our health.
Science says that we should heed anger's rallying cry because it tells us something must change.
Let's return to the wise words I shared earlier—the key is that holding onto anger is like poison, not anger itself.
How can we use anger productively? Science says that we should heed its rallying cry because it tells us something must change. It's okay to feel angry—in fact, we have a right to fully experience this emotion. Then, we should communicate it clearly, and let its motivating force fan our passion and guide our conscience.