Have you ever screamed a string of expletives while fighting traffic on US-1, well aware that no one can hear you? Or maybe you’ve slammed the door in your roommate’s face after they once again refused to wash their dishes, before realizing later you could’ve handled the situation a little better? Whichever way you’ve dealt with anger in the past, you’re not alone. Sometimes it just feels good to let it out.
Anger can get the best of us, sneaking its way under our skin until we’re forced to express it. Although it can be an uncomfortable emotion that leaves you feeling lonely or unheard, anger is completely normal—and there are plenty of healthy ways to deal with it.
But if you’re starting to find that your emotion are bottling up or that outbursts feel more harmful than therapeutic, consider taking a new approach to tackling this beast.
Mental health is a hot topic among college students, with more attention than ever being paid to issues like anxiety and depression. But the stress of school work, relationships, money and other obstacles students face can manifest itself in another way: anger, a topic often left unaddressed when it comes to mental health awareness, education and counseling.
University of Miami sophomore Hannah Casper said that when she feels intense emotions, she tries to keep calm. “In the moment, I try to take deep breaths to not freak out, which usually doesn’t work,” said Casper. “Sometimes, I go on long rants to my friends.”
But UM sophomore Ava Goldammer said she tries to keep it all in. “I completely shut down until I can’t take it anymore,” she said. “Then, I explode.”
The Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Santa Barbra considers “anger to be a behavior-regulating program that was built into the neural architecture of the human species over evolutionary time.” In other words, anger is a product of evolution.
“In today’s more civilized world, anger can lead to helpful behavior,” Mental Health Coordinator Katy Halverson wrote on Intermountain Healthcare’s website. “Anger can boost your energy and prevent people from taking advantage of you and your loved ones. Many people use anger to motivate them to do something positive.”
Environmental activist Greta Thunberg is one example. She used her anger at the United Nation’s Climate Action Summit to compel her audience and hold political leaders accountable for their actions.
“People are dying!” She exclaimed. “All you can talk about is money and fairy tales of economic growth.
How dare you!” Her words sparked a mass movement of students, who adopted her anger as their own in the fight against climate change.
Yet anger can also be negative, especially when it elicits unhealthy responses. For instance, it can negatively affect
your health, causing chronic pain, sleep difficulties, digestive problems and even heart disease. Unhealthy expressions of anger can include physical aggression, criticism and verbal arguments.
There are ways to prevent yourself from surrendering to these impulses before they even occur. It may come as no surprise that many of these lifestyle changes are healthy habits not just for anger management, but all-around wellbeing.
According to Spencer Evans, assistant professor of psychology at UM, preventative strategies include getting consistent sleep, exercising, eating a healthy diet and limiting caffeine and substance use. College students especially, he said, should pay careful attention to that last point, as heavy drinking and caffeine use can lead to excessive aggression.
Still, external triggers “such as problems with the world or another person,” said Evans, may be out of your control. In these cases, it’s helpful to practice forgiveness towards others and gratitude for what you have. Of course, we’re not saying you need to forgive anyone and everyone who has wronged you, especially if this person has caused trauma or serious damage. While forgiveness may help people to heal and move on, it’s always yours to give and withhold.
“The occasional outburst can help us grow,” said Jennifer Goldstein, an adolescent therapist. Everyone has them, she said, and “while they are not ideal, they do provide good learning opportunities for reflection.”
But angry outbursts become a problem when they happen too frequently or are provoked by what most people would consider to be minor inconveniences. They are especially troublesome if they affect your relationships, cause you to become violent or are uncontrollable.
Mental Health America suggests that if you need to safely release rage, “scream into your pillow, sing furiously, dance, go for a run or destroy a physical representation of your anger, such as a piece of paper that describes what’s upsetting you.”
Because aggressive responses to anger are not supported by research, Evans said that in the moment, one should “disengage with the situation” and direct their attention to something else.
Goldstein said one of the best ways to deal with anger is practicing self-soothing methods and talking about your emotions. Self-soothing can take on various forms, but meditation and yoga are among the most common.
Talking to others, especially a “neutral person” who is not biased toward you or someone else, can also help you to communicate and to understand the root of your anger. But it’s never a good idea to bottle things up.
“It’s like sweeping the dirt under the rug and keeping the lid on a boiling pot,” according to an article from the
Kentucky Counseling Center. Most people suppress their emotions, it said, because they fear being seen as weak.
Another reason people suppress their feelings, Goldstein said, “is that they fear conflict that may arise out of expressing anger,” even though conflict is a natural part of relationships. “If you practice learning how to express your anger in healthy ways,” she said, “you may be able to see that healthy communication with another person will help you to avoid a buildup of anger.”
No one can’t ignore anger forever. At some point, you will have to come to terms with your emotions—or risk exploding. To avoid repressing these emotions, you must first recognize the cause of your negative feelings. Ask yourself questions such as “What am I feeling? When did this start? Do these feelings take over most of my day?” and “Do my emotions affect my relationships with loved ones?”
Bottom line: Anger is powerful. It’s a confusing emotion that can drag you down, but it can also motivate you. Learning how to let it in, work through it and move on can help us grow as humans, improve our mental health and treat the people around us a little better.