Science of Emotions: Understanding Anger

Science of Anger: Can Anger Actually Be a Good Thing?


Jayatri Das, Ph.D.

Can Anger Be a Good Thing?
“Whate’er’s begun in anger ends in shame.” Benjamin Franklin offers these words of caution in Poor Richard’s Almanack, advising the reader about the consequences of acting on such a strong emotion. But scientists have proposed several theories suggesting how anger is a useful communication signal that has helped humans survive throughout our evolutionary history. Imagine you’re in an argument—getting angry might convince the other person to compromise or back down. Or, consider that any society needs to abide by certain rules and norms for the benefit of its people. If you get mad when someone breaks those rules, that anger is a way to show others that you care about their wellbeing. So if anger can be a good thing, what’s actually going on in our bodies and how can we control it? 

How it Works
When you’re provoked into feeling angry, your body generates a stress response, similar to when you feel fear. As you can explore in our Your Brain exhibit, your heartbeat gets faster, your muscles contract, your facial expression and body language change. Unlike fear, however, where your first reaction may be to flee, anger is associated with a desire for confrontation. Your attention becomes focused on the threat, instinctively preparing for physical conflict. Often, your prefrontal cortex—the part of your brain responsible for judgment and self-control—is then able to put the situation in context and pull you back from the edge. But sometimes, the brain’s emotional center wins, compromising your ability to process information and make decisions, and you lash out physically or verbally. 

Not everyone reacts with the same level of anger to the same situation. Scientists refer to this likelihood of becoming angry as “trait anger.” (Just think about how some people tend to show more road rage than others.) A recent study by scientists from Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea and Duke University looked at whole brain imaging data from more than a thousand people to investigate the characteristics of this variation. Intriguingly, they observed differences in the patterns of connections between brain areas involved with movement, action, and action-planning functions. The team hypothesizes that the denser connections across these areas among people who have higher levels of trait anger could potentially explain why they tend to act out on that frustration. 

What Can We Do About it?
Uncontrolled anger can be bad for your physical and mental health, negatively affecting heart health, stress-related conditions, risky behaviors, and relationships with family and friends. It’s important to recognize the signs of anger; the sooner you acknowledge your feelings, the more time you have to decide how to react. The American Psychological Association describes three approaches to anger management. First, you can express your feelings productively to communicate what you need and how to solve the problem. Second, you can try to suppress your anger and shift your focus to something positive, although holding your anger in and dwelling on it can risk more long-term problems. Finally, you can buy yourself time to calm down by walking away and slowing your breath and heart rate. There are many practical strategies for controlling your emotions; try different techniques to find what might work for you. We all experience anger—but with the right approach, it doesn’t have to end in shame. 

Dr. Jayatri Das, Chief Bioscientist at The Franklin Institute

About the author

Jayatri Das, Ph.D.

As Chief Bioscientist at The Franklin Institute, Jayatri Das helps us understand ourselves. How do our brains work? How do our neighborhoods affect our health? How will new technologies change our future? As an awesome science communicator, she brings us all into the conversation!