Health Agenda

Mental Health

Anger: is bottling it up bad for us?

Where does anger come from? And is expressing it good for us? We ask the experts.

Charmaine Yabsley
November 2018

Anger is a familiar, yet usually unwelcome or uncomfortable feeling. A car pulls out in front of you when you’re driving, or you have an argument with your partner. Your muscles tense, your heart races, you may even raise your voice or start to shake with emotion.

There could be many reasons or situations when we get angry, but where does this anger come from?

According to Dr Stan Steindl, Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychology at The University of Queensland, anger is something humans have always felt and has helped us to survive as a species.

He points out that anger has evolved from the flight or fight response; the reactions we, and all animals, experience when we feel threatened by something or someone.

“We either respond with anxiety, which motivates us to flee from the threat, or if [we] feel cornered, we respond with anger to fight and lash out to attack or overcome the threat,” he explains. “We’re no different to animals from this point of view.”

How our brains have changed

Our brains have evolved dramatically in the last 200,000 years and these changes may explain how and why we get angry.

“We still have the old-brain functions, which contain emotions such as anger, anxiety, disgust and various other urges,” says Dr Steindl. But we also “now have newly formed brains, which is our unique human ability to remember, imagine, create and form new ideas.”

Because of this development, when we feel threatened, explains Dr Steindl, we respond as much to what happened, as to what could happen.

“If somebody cuts you off in traffic, we’re angry because we could have had an accident and been killed,” he says. Our new, modern brain has catastrophised the situation, continuing to imagine death or injury from that inconsiderate driver, rather than just the inconvenience.

Are other emotions contributing to your anger?

Dr Steindl says that anger is usually an expression of some sort of unmet need.

“Often when there’s anger there’s also hurt, vulnerability, anxiety. A good question to ask yourself is, ‘what is it I really need right now to feel safe?’ Not what you want to feel good.”

The other feeling behind anger is often sadness, which “from an evolutionary point of view, can be very frightening. When we’re sad, we start to cry, which means we can’t see, our noses become blocked up, so we can’t smell, and… we can’t run very well,” says Dr Steindl.

“This vulnerable position means that people will do anything, including get angry, so that they don’t feel sad. In this case, anger is a much more comfortable emotion.”

Appropriate expression of anger

Uncontrolled anger can be unhelpful and harm your relationships. But if you try to bottle up your emotions, it can have an impact on your physical and mental health. A US study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found that suppressing emotions may increase the risk of dying of heart disease and some cancers.

Dr Steindl believes that letting out these feelings is good for us. He calls this management of anger a “psychological hygiene process”.

“Anger is just another emotional output of what it means to be human. Anger can motivate very important things, such as motivating people to protest against injustice, or a mother to fight for her child’s health,” he says.

He says that it’s important to feel anger, “then express it in ways which are constructive and assertive, rather than harmful”. 

In order to do this, Dr Steindl recommends investing time and energy into being able to create a feeling of calm.

The sympathetic nervous system is influenced by anger, “which is why our heart and breathing quicken and our muscles tighten when we get angry. What we want to do is activate the parasympathetic nervous system, to create a sense of peace and safety.”

Calm minds think differently, says Dr Steindl. He recommends visualising a safe and soothing place whenever you feel the ‘red mist’ rising.

“Breathing is the best place to start. Slow the breathing down, breathing in for 3–5 seconds and out for the same.”

“At first we may not get to do the breathing until after the explosion [of emotion]. But with practice, we can learn to be calm, and catch the moment before we react. This isn’t about becoming a doormat but knowing the best way to be expressive.”

One way to manage your anger is to write down your feelings, which might help you get some perspective.

And if you find yourself regularly getting angry in a certain situation, you may want to look at alternatives. For instance if you find yourself getting angrier at the behaviour of other drivers on the road, perhaps catching public transport is a good solution to help you avoid this trigger situation.

If you feel you have problems managing your anger, speak to your GP about other resources and treatment. If you are feeling anxious or depressed and need to talk to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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