How Anger Can Help Guide Our Emotional Recovery

Patient expressing her anger sitting at psychotherapy

Anger often gets a bad rap, which is not all that surprising since this singular emotion is typically linked to all kinds of travesties and disasters. War. Divorce. Assault. Emotional abuse. Bullying. The list is pretty exhaustive!

If you scratch beneath the surface, all these events are in some way linked to anger. 

However, what often gets forgotten is that much like happiness, joy, and excitement, anger is just a normal and healthy emotion – one that can sometimes be incredibly useful, depending on its cause or reason and how we choose to respond to it.

Some researchers believe that anger (among other emotions) is tied to our basic survival and has been honed throughout human history.

For example, anger is associated with our nervous system’s response to danger, i.e., the fight, flight, freeze and fawn response, an innate bodily reaction that prepares us for survival in dangerous or life-threatening situations.

As with other primary emotions, anger has a distinct purpose and functionality and can be expressed either adaptively (healthily) or maladaptively (unhealthily).

Anger can be a useful emotion when used constructively

Anger isn’t all about violent bar brawls and sucker punches.

It can motivate us to stand up for ourselves and fight against injustice; it can even encourage communities to overcome oppression by changing antiquated laws and reinforcing new ways of doing things.

When used constructively, anger doesn’t have to be thought of as negative, threatening, or destructive; anger can serve as a helpful ally, empowering us with the strength and courage to draw boundaries and stand up for what we believe in. 

Interestingly, some researchers believe that anger can also signify emotional recovery. However, before we dive deeper into how and why anger can help guide healing, let’s first look at some definitions of anger.

What is anger?

There are various ways to describe anger. For instance, some experts describe it as a strong feeling of displeasure, hostility and annoyance. 

Other experts describe anger as an intense emotion we feel when something has gone wrong or someone has treated us in an unfair or unacceptable way. (Understanding Anger, Verywell Mind, Toketemu Ohwovoriole, July 5, 2023.)

Anger is typically characterised by feelings of frustration, stress and agitation. (Understanding Anger, Verywell Mind, Toketemu Ohwovoriole, July 5, 2023.)

Although anger is a perfectly normal response to upsetting or frustrating situations, when easily mobilised or triggered it can cause various issues in a person’s life, including their work, relationships, and health.

For example, one study showed that chronic release of the stress hormones accompanying anger can impair or destroy neurons in brain areas associated with short-term memory and judgement. In addition, excessive release of certain stress hormones can weaken the immune system. (Anger, Psychology Today.)  

Apart from the obvious impact that our anger can have on us and those around us, it usually only becomes an issue when expressed in a destructive way. This maladaptive expression will typically affect a person’s daily functioning, especially when their anger is easily aroused or excessively displayed. 

Moreover, anger can make people act and behave in ways they wouldn’t normally and can range in severity from mild frustration to full-blown, aggressive rage.

Common signs of anger

Everyone experiences anger differently, but typically, when feeling angry or irritated, our body goes through physiological changes where we are likely to experience the following:

  • Increase in body temperature
  • High blood pressure
  • More energy than usual
  • Muscle tension
  • Excessive sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Hormonal changes, including increased levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline

Although anger presents differently in each individual, other common signs of anger may include:

Portrait of a angry middle age man getting fury
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Flushed face
  • Tightened or clenched jaw
  • An uncomfortable feeling in the stomach
  • Changes in facial expressions, such as frowning or facial muscle tension
  • Excessive sighing or deep breathing

Other ways that anger may present itself

We all have different ways of expressing our anger. 

Some of us may hold our anger in, hiding our true feelings from the rest of the world. Others may feel anxious, guilty, or fearful when they experience anger – turning their anger inward. While for other people, the anger is immediately directed outward and can be an explosion, culminating in raised voices, shouting and throwing objects around the room.

Some of the ways that anger may present itself include:

  • The silent treatment – instead of stomping their feet or throwing objects around the room when agitated, some people use the silent treatment, where they shut off and ignore or refuse to communicate with others. This passive-aggressive anger response can be a way of hiding your vulnerability, but bottling up your feelings will only lead to heightened resentment and suppressed emotions, which may affect your health and relationships in the long term.
  • Refusing to acknowledge the anger – some people push away their feelings of anger, believing they cannot handle such strong emotions, whether it’s their own anger or someone else’s. The person may refuse to talk about their feelings, change the subject, or paint on a happy face, despite the seething emotions that bubble beneath the surface. Refusing to acknowledge your anger may cause complications in many aspects of your life, as any underlying issues often remain unaddressed, causing further irritation and resentment within yourself and others. 
  • Sudden eruptions of anger – the initial release of frustration can feel great in the short term, but individuals who quickly fly off the handle often regret allowing their anger to get the better of them. Those who blow off steam too quickly may have sudden, unexpected outbursts of anger during a heated conversation, storm out of the room, or become verbally abusive or violent, only to regret their actions later. 

How individuals express their anger is often a result of learned responses from childhood. It will also depend a lot on how well a person is able to recognise, understand, and process their feelings as an adult. 

For instance, were they punished or ridiculed for expressing their frustration as children?

Do they feel safe enough to express their anger or disappointment? 

Can they recognise when their anger is rooted in the past and no longer fits the current situation?

Do they understand their anger indicates an assertive sense of self, to protect themselves and maintain healthy boundaries? 

These are key questions that can help us to recognise and better understand our anger and learn how to respond to the emotion when it arises in a more constructive and healthy way.

Now that we’ve looked at some common signs and expressions of anger, let’s explore how it can be a positive emotion and help guide our emotional recovery.

How Anger Can Help Guide Our Emotional Recovery

There are plenty of negatives associated with anger – some of which we have already covered in this article – but are there any positives?

According to researchers, there are several upsides to anger, all of which can be helpful for those overcoming loss, heartbreak and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

Many experts believe that anger can be a crucial part of the emotional healing process. 

Let’s look at some of the reasons why this might be true.

1. Anger can be a signal that we need to pay attention to something that is wrong

Trauma and Addiction

Whether we have just come out the other side of an abusive relationship, are dealing with traumatic loss, have endured childhood adversities, are burnt out at work, or have experienced a violation of our trust; anger doesn’t always rank as the primary ‘go to’ emotion for many dealing with challenging situations. 

Typically, in survival mode, other emotions, such as worry, fear, sadness, or anxiety, tend to take over. These reactions can help us to survive in the short term, allowing us to get through whatever challenge or crisis we’re facing – but they can also keep us stuck.

In many cases, people will look for ways to avoid or numb these unpleasant feelings – including self-medicating with alcohol or drugs – which will just further prolong the healing process.

However, at some point, we are likely to start feeling angry. Such anger could be directed at ourselves, another person, or both.

While it might feel uncomfortable, especially if we were taught to suppress our anger as children, this rising emotion is a gift. It serves as an internal guidance system that indicates something isn’t quite right. 

It may highlight that we have not been treated as well as we deserve, provide a benchmark that allows us to create healthy boundaries with others, and empower us to create the change we need in our lives.

Depending on the severity and nature of the anger, this response can be a healthy sign as the reality of what you’ve been through (or are still going through) begins to sink in, meaning you are no longer in denial and are ready to face up to the problem.

In this way, anger can be an incredibly important part of the emotional recovery process, as it signals that we need to pay attention to something that needs to be healed so we can become unstuck.

2. Anger can show us precisely where we are hurt so we can begin working on that part of our lives

Where there is anger, there is always pain underneath.” ~ Eckhart Tolle

Anger can often be a secondary emotion. This means that when we feel our anger rising, there is actually another emotion lurking beneath the surface that is fuelling it.

Emotional pain that hasn’t been identified and processed effectively can be easily triggered and result in anger. Again, while this can be uncomfortable and challenging at times, it can also be a gift for those needing to heal. 

For example, a person raised by absent parents can be painfully triggered when someone they care about isn’t available. If a friend can’t make a lunch date or doesn’t return their calls, the trauma from their childhood neglect can make them disproportionately upset and angry.

On the surface, the anger is sending a simple message to their brain and body that something painful within them has been triggered and is asking to be acknowledged. When explored further, they will find that the anger also shows precisely what the deep wound is that is now bringing their vulnerability and pain to the surface.

The emotion of anger never really goes away if we don’t address it. It will remain trapped in our bodies, easily triggered, and potentially causing us physical and mental harm.

The first step towards emotional healing, then, can be to identify what is really making us angry and why this might be the case. You can ask yourself, “Why am I reacting in this way? What is underneath my anger? What is the root cause of my suffering?” 

This process of bringing awareness to our anger triggers can really help us see what needs to be healed and to learn healthier responses to potential triggers in the future.

If you are experiencing an intense anger response such as rage or aggressive outbursts (that feel very inappropriate for the situation), you may be experiencing the after-effects of trauma, also known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

3. Anger can serve as a barometer to tell us if things are improving

A couple having an argument

Social activist Barbara Deming states, “There is clearly a kind of anger that is healthy. It is the concentration of one’s whole being in the determination: this must change.

When we listen to what our anger is trying to tell us, we can begin to identify and work through the pain that it has signalled needs our attention. We can start to discover the unacceptable aspects of our lives where we seek change and move towards a healthier, happier way of being.

Our anger response can be a great measure throughout this process, indicating how well we’re doing on our journey towards emotional recovery. 

If we still feel angry in certain situations (or about an event that happened some time ago), then this is a clear sign that something is still wrong and we must explore further.

For some, the help of a mental health professional will be instrumental in this process, especially for those dealing with trauma and post traumatic stress disorder.

Are there any complications?

Although anger can be a healthy emotion and beneficial to your overall well-being, it can also harm your physical and mental health when left unaddressed, becoming chronic or excessive.

When your body experiences chronic changes in physiological arousal (such as high blood pressure or rapid heartbeat), which are natural responses to anger, this can lead to various physical and mental health complications, including the following:

  • Substance addiction – those who find it challenging to control their anger (or to explore what it might be trying to tell them) risk turning to various coping mechanisms to manage or suppress unpleasant feelings and responses, which can include excessive drinking and illicit drug-taking. When these coping patterns continue over the long term, the individual is at high risk of developing a substance addiction. 
  • High blood pressure
  • Anxiety 
  • Depression
  • Sleep disorders
  • Chronic skin conditions
  • Diabetes
  • Bowel disease

The bottom line

Anger can be a healthy emotion; calmly and respectfully airing your concerns, worries, and frustrations to others can significantly benefit your health and well-being. 

It can serve as a valuable function to make sure you are well treated and getting your needs met, and can be a good sign that you’re on the road to recovery.

Moreover, anger can help guide your emotional recovery, signalling where you need to pay attention to something that is wrong, showing you precisely where you are in pain, and serving as a barometer to measure your progress as you heal.

However, prolonged stress and excessive physiological arousal from anger can cause various problems in your daily functioning, relationships and quality of life.

If you have anger issues, or want help and support on your recovery journey, consult a mental health professional. They can help you explore the root causes of your anger and give you valuable tools to control your symptoms and restore balance. 

How Centres for Health and Healing can help

behavorial health

Centres for Health and Healing provide personalised addiction and mental health treatment to clients in Ontario and surrounding regions.

Our personalised approach to recovery, whatever issues you face, aims to treat the ‘whole’ person, not just their presenting symptoms.

We offer individualised treatment programs that help diagnose and treat various mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, substance addiction, anger issues, and more. 

Anger is a normal part of life, but when it starts to negatively impact your daily functioning and relationships, it may be time to seek the help of a professional who can help you get to the underlying cause of your anger, giving you the tools and resources to manage your symptoms and begin emotional healing.

If you struggle with controlling your anger, contact a friendly specialist at our treatment centre in Ontario who can provide further information and support.

You do not need to suffer in silence. Support and treatment are available; we are here and ready to help!

Additional resources 

  1. Understanding Anger, Verywell Mind, Toketemu Ohwovoriole, 5 July, 2023
  2. Anger, Psychology Today 
  3. Understanding anger and how to deal with it, Centres for Health and Healing, Lisa  Davies, 30 March, 2022
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