Exploring Anger: What It Is, What It Does, and When It’s Appropriate

Exploring angerIt’s happened to everyone: that internal switch that gets flicked on without a moment’s notice and just like that… all you can see is red. For different people, anger manifests itself in many different forms, at different times and because of different triggers. There is no set equation for anger, no exact variables, and no precise outcome. Anger fuels wars, divorce, and sometimes even great novels, yet still a number of things about it are left unanswered and unknown. However, modern science has made a great deal of headway in understanding one of the most, if not the most, intense feelings within the human emotional spectrum.

In a 1994 experiment by Boedenhausen, Sheppard, and Kramer, participants were either asked to write about a past experience that made them really happy or one that made them really sad. They were then asked to read an essay about raising the driving age from 16 to 18, and some were told that the essay was written by policy experts at Princeton University while others were told it was by a group of community college students. Although it was exactly the same essay, the reactions of the participants whose negative experiences were “sad” were not  influenced by who wrote the essay. However, those whose negative experiences were “angry” were persuaded much more by the essay supposedly written by the policy experts. Why? According to the researchers, anger essentially tells our brain there is a need for quick action, short-circuiting our neural pathways, prompting a quick and dirty processing of information, instead of comprehensive, systematic processing. This partially explains the rash decisions brought about by a surge of anger but still leaves unanswered many other questions.

Is anger a temporary feeling or a perpetual state of mind or mental disorder? Certainly there are individuals who are angry more often than others, but when does anger start to define an individual? According to the DSM-IV-TR, the go-to manual for diagnoses of mental disorders, there is no specific disorder simply characterized by anger. A few do come close however, including Adjustment Disorder with Disturbance of Conduct, Antisocial Personality Disorder, and Intermittent Explosive Disorder. Intermittent Explosive Disorder is an impulse control disorder characterized by repeated “failure to resist aggressive impulses that result in serious assaultive acts or destruction of property.” This disorder may account for the episodes of violent rage that we see in the media that oftentimes result in homicide and suicide. However, no specific diagnosis of mental disorder can be attributed to individuals whose anger, although recurrent and intense, does not result in assaultive or destructive tendencies. Perhaps this is because it is hard to differentiate from normal feelings of anger, and unwarranted and disorderly anger. Then again, what are “normal” feelings of anger?

Any “normal” behavior is difficult to define; does “normal” mean the healthiest mode of behavior or behavior that is simply representative of the majority? According to positive psychologists, happiness and pleasantries always trump anger and confrontation in terms of healthy and beneficial behavior. However, anger plays an essential role in the human emotional spectrum. Anger allows individuals to advocate for themselves and others and avoid compromising their needs and goals in order to achieve what they want. It is the fuel behind many individuals’ striving for success, and has played a role in many great achievements in history. As stated by Bede Jerret, “The world needs anger. The world often continues to allow evil because it isn’t angry enough.” On the other hand, however, anger has a quintessential role in many horrific events and catastrophes. This push and pull of the benefits and consequences of anger makes it hard to determine an appropriate amount or level of anger but a few simple rules may help you assess your anger levels:

Anger may be appropriate, but rage is not. While it’s difficult to put into words what the difference is between anger and rage, anyone who has seen or experienced rage (and everyone has) knows the difference. Whereas anger can be constructed into coherent arguments to reach or achieve goals, rage is destructive to the self and often to others, and without clear goals or solutions. While it’s almost impossible, and probably even harmful, to suppress rage, expressing it rarely ever achieves the solutions necessary to ease this intense emotion or dissolve the problems. Additionally, expressions of rage, such as tantrums or destruction of property, can be extremely embarrassing for both the expresser and the target of the fury. So next time you feel a surge of rage come about, concentrate all your effort into walking away so you can cool down and come back to the problem when you can express anger without blowing your lid.

Knowing how and when to express your anger is a skill worth developing. Pick your battles carefully. Some things simply aren’t worth getting upset over, and even then, how you fight your battles makes a huge difference. For example, even if you think no one is listening to you, raising your voice will only worsen the situation because people will focus on the fact that you are yelling, not what you’re yelling about. Nevertheless, bottling up anger has been shown in research to cause plaque build-up in arterial walls that can lead to congestive heart failure. So if you really feel the need to say something, be sure to express yourself in a way that you will be heard by the other person.

If it bothers you the next day, say something. Laurence J. Peter once said, “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you’ll ever regret.” As mentioned earlier, anger short circuits the neural pathways used in thinking, so everything automatically gets simplified in your mind, becomes either black or white; and as everyone knows, the world is hardly ever black or white. The best thing to do, however difficult it may be, is to wait it out, let your anger fall by the wayside of rationality. If you’re still upset after your anger subsides, then think of a logical way to advocate for a solution to the problem. Not only will you be more confident of your right to fight, but those you are fighting against are much more likely to listen to you if you’re not hot-headed and able to argue coherently.


Anger has been the catalyst for many great and greatly destructive events throughout the course of history. While suppressing anger can lead to resentment and embitterment, expressing it can be socially isolating, embarrassing, and perhaps even socially and physically destructive. However, anger essentially forces the mind to rely on short cuts to make rash decisions, so realizing this and resisting the urge to act on it is the first step in monitoring and effectively focusing your anger into constructive means for reaching a solution or achieving a goal.

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Angela Johnson

Thank you for this article. First time I saw reference to arterial plaque build up from bottling up anger. I found this article while searching for information on anger exploration. I was thinking more of anger exploration because I tend to keep things bottled up. Thank you for the congestive heart failure reference. Very important information to know.

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