Anger danger: The ups & downs of this strong emotion

Woman with angry face on a paper bag over her head

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Everyone knows what it feels like to be angry — but what some people may not realize is that there are both benefits and disadvantages to this emotion.

Howard Kassinove, PhD, ABPP, professor of psychology at Hofstra University in New York, and the director of the university’s Institute for the Study and Treatment of Anger and Aggression, explains a bit about some of the positive — and negative — aspects of anger.
Anger benefits: What are some of the positive aspects of anger?

Many of the longer-term outcomes of anger are negative. Yet, anger is part of our biological history. It is part of the fight-or-flight reaction. It had survival value in the past, and it has some positives in the present. Many of these, however, are short-term benefits, as few of us like to spend time with angry people.

Anger can be an appropriate response to injustice. No doubt, anger played a useful part in social movements for equality for blacks, the elderly and women, among others. Anger may also lead to better outcomes in business negotiations as well as an increased motivation to right the wrongs we see in the world.

The positives include its alerting function. Anger tells others it is important to listen to us – that we feel agitated and it is wise to be alert to our words and actions. It may also lead to compliance by others. Strongly asserting that we were first in line at a store counter may lead to better service.

MORE: Parental zen: How parents can keep their cool

Also, in the short term, children and others may be more likely to comply with our requests when we are angry. “Don’t go in the street without holding mommy’s hand!” when said angrily to a small child, can be lifesaving.

Anger sometimes just feels good and righteous. We may feel angry when watching a movie or a play where a character suffers inappropriately. Then, when good triumphs over evil, anger is replaced with a feeling of satisfaction. Playwrights have known about this for eons.

In a similar vein, anger provides a certain zest for life. Can you imagine a world with no anger? The healthier, milder levels of irritation and annoyance add spice to daily existence, and we all seem to enjoy that.

Anger downside: What are potential health consequences of anger?

Many people consider excessive anger to be just a psychological problem. That is a gross simplification. When we become angry, the autonomic nervous system is aroused.

For example, anger precipitated by the discovery of a spouse’s secret affair will likely lead to arousal of the sympathetic nervous system and associated hormonal and neurochemical changes. These physiological reactions can lead to increases in cardiovascular responding, in respiration and perspiration, in blood flow to active muscles and in strength.

As the anger persists, it will affect many of the body’s systems, such as the cardiovascular, immune, digestive and central nervous systems. This will lead to increased risks of hypertension and stroke, heart disease, gastric ulcers and bowel diseases — as well as slower wound healing and a possible increased risk of some types of cancers.

ALSO SEE: So mad! Coping when you’re angry at family or friends

Research has found that anger is an independent risk factor for heart disease. Having a tendency to experience anger frequently, in many types of situations, is known as high trait anger.

One study followed 12,986 adults for approximately three years, and found a two to three times increased risk of coronary events in people with normal blood pressure but with high trait anger. Another study followed 4,083 adults for 10 to 15 years, and found that those who were lowest on anger control had the highest risk of fatal and non-fatal cardiovascular events.

After reviewing the literature, experts have concluded that high trait anger, chronic hostility, anger expression and acute anger episodes can lead to new and recurrent cardiovascular disease. When anger is experienced moderately and expressed assertively, it may be less disruptive than when it is frequent, intense and enduring.

American Psychological Association

American Psychological Association

The The American Psychological Association, in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 137,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.

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