EIt’s 8 o’clock in the morning. You are on your way to work. The holidays are over and you still had to take the children to school. Now you’re running late because you had to take a detour because of a new construction site. Every traffic light is red. An important meeting is about to take place in which you are supposed to present your project to your superiors, in which you have been investing all your heart and soul for months. Even if all roads were clear now, you wouldn’t make it to the company in time. Your heart rate increases. Your cell phone rings – it’s your colleague’s turn: “The bosses don’t want to wait, the presentation has to be postponed.” You’ll be wide awake by now at the latest. Your heart is pounding, your whole body is tingling and tense.
You get angry. You get annoyed with your children who dawdled while getting dressed. You are angry about the construction site, which cost you valuable time. And you get angry at the colleague who couldn’t stall the superiors. And of course you’re annoyed with yourself too – you could have gotten up earlier and sent the kids to the bus.
This is a situation that can happen to anyone in one way or another. The trouble is in everyday life. What makes you angry often seems clear: it’s usually the fault of others. The construction sites, the colleagues, the children. but why you get angry and why that’s good, hardly anyone realizes. “Emotions always have useful functions. This also includes anger, although it tends to be associated with negative things. So with everything that doesn’t feel good,” says Ana Nanette Tibubos. She is a graduate psychologist and did research and doctorate at the Goethe University on the topic “The positive aspects of experiencing anger from a differential psychological perspective”.
Why you get angry about little things
“The most important function of anger is to draw our attention to a situation that we find relevant and perceived as threatening,” explains Tibubos. The causes of feelings of anger have been well researched. For most people, this is the subjective perception of injustice, that is, when they feel they are being treated unfairly or have been put in an unfair situation. This can happen when someone is accused of something they are not responsible for.
The anger does not always come as concentrated as in the example at the beginning. It’s often the seemingly small things that annoy us. For example, if someone occupies the seat on the train with their backpack that we would like to sit on. “Anger always arises when you want to do something and are prevented from doing it,” says Tibubos. In scientific terms: A blocking action to achieve a goal state. You want to work in your home office, but the internet keeps failing. You want to establish a friendly relationship with your colleague, but he behaves impolitely. Depending on how relevant you rate the target state, the greater the anger when you are prevented from doing so. If the anger gets too strong, it can even degenerate into anger.
What happens in the body when there is anger
Emotions are a whole bodily feeling, they influence not only physical processes in the body but also thoughts and behavior. The cognitive-transactional stress theory of the psychologist Richard Lazarus describes what happens in the psyche. Accordingly, we evaluate situations according to primary and secondary aspects. We primarily evaluate whether we are in a relevant or irrelevant situation. Secondarily, we assess whether the situation is threatening and whether we have the appropriate resources to deal with it. This triggers the cascade of reactions – physical, psychological and in our behavior – which in turn can lead to new anger situations. “We don’t consciously perceive any of this because everything takes place in fractions of a second and simultaneously,” explains Tibubos.
When we get angry, the body goes on alert. All bodily functions are directed towards removing the annoying obstacle. The stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline are released, causing the heartbeat, pulse and breathing rate to accelerate. In order to improve blood circulation and oxygen supply, blood vessels and muscles expand. The body behaves as if in a dangerous situation. Everything has to happen quickly, so the pros and cons of reactions are not given much thought. Clear thinking is blocked, and so it can happen that you write an angry e-mail to the boss in an emotional state, call your colleague a “stupid cow” or throw the laptop out the window because it has hung itself again.
But what’s supposed to be positive about that? “Positive aspects of anger do not mean that one is happy, but that a positive activation takes place,” explains the psychologist. In a simulated laboratory situation, Tibubos and her research team teased around a hundred people with increasing intensity, measuring their physical and mental states. “We were able to prove aspects of anger on all levels. A key finding from my research is that angry people become more alert and alert. You also feel more physically active.” So anger is stimulating. If you become aware of this, you can transform the energy into something positive.
Disconnect thoughts from physical processes
“It’s not easy, but if you can separate your bodily processes from your thoughts, you can use anger constructively,” says Tibubos. In psychotherapeutic work, this is called cognitive restructuring: the process of experiencing anger should be consciously perceived. Then it is analyzed at which point it is possible to gain control over the situation in order to get out of a possible vicious circle of negative emotions. At work, this could mean pausing and using the resulting energy for another task. If that doesn’t work, you could take a break and exercise since you’re already physically active. When working from home, it makes sense to do something around the house during the break. Even those who are annoyed with themselves every now and then in everyday life can use this energy for themselves with a little practice.
“When you’re angry with yourself, you attack yourself,” explains Tibubos. This is reflected in the inner monologues that many are familiar with: Oh, why did you do that again! “Instead of scolding yourself, you could say: ‘Now I’ll use this body feeling, go for a run and do something good for my health’,” the psychologist suggests. Being self-aware isn’t a bad trait per se. However, blaming yourself too often for uncomfortable situations is more likely to indicate poor mental health, low self-esteem, or depressive moods.
How best to deal with anger
What can help against this is first of all the insight that one tends to always blame oneself. In the next step you can check: Is that correct? It’s difficult alone. It is better if you discuss this with a trusted person to get a corrective outside perspective. This can help to react differently in similar situations in the future or, as a first step, to perceive future reactions differently.
Basically, feeling angry repeatedly in everyday life is not good for the body and mind. Anger becomes harmful to us when we cannot control it and it keeps coming back. If you are occasionally annoyed by a colleague’s cheeky remarks, you can calm down again after a short time. But if this happens several times a day or several times a week, it becomes more difficult. A permanent state of stress can arise. “And you have to be careful. Because it is also associated with common diseases such as cardiovascular diseases,” says Tibubos. Elevated blood pressure increases the risk of heart attacks, for example. But anger also hits the stomach and can cause inflammation of the mucous membranes and ulcers there. Muscle tension, especially in the jaw, neck and back areas, is also typical of a permanent state of stress.
Anger as a motivation booster
If anger lasts only for a short time and can be regulated, it is not in itself harmful. Dealing well with anger is related to self-acceptance and understanding of the situation. “Negative emotions come and go, you can’t avoid them and you shouldn’t. It’s important not to let yourself be captivated by it and not lose control,” says the psychologist.
So anger activates and offers the chance to learn something about ourselves. We get angry because something goes wrong that we think is important. With this knowledge, we can reflect better and maybe observe ourselves next time, control the emotion better and react more calmly. In the best case, we can use the anger as a motivation booster for other activities.