Healthy aggression v anger

Anger is definitely a toxic emotion. Like fear, it is classified as a high-energy negative emotion, as opposed to low-energy ones, such as sadness or guilt.

Yet, is there such a thing as healthy aggression?

Fear and excitement produce the same physiological response: a rush of adrenaline that prepares us to defend ourselves or run – fight or flight.

Similarly, there is a close physiological correlation between a person in an angry state and one in a state of sexual arousal.

As the sex drive is an indispensable component of our survival as a species (we simply wouldn’t be here without it), we are all born with innate aggressive urges that are not at all destructive, but rather a drive for survival and growth.

In certain Eastern and Western cultures, there is a tendency to suppress any expression of this natural force from an early age: children are scolded, even punished, for showing any sign of anger. Probably as a result of this, many adults will avoid any direct confrontation, resorting instead to not-so-healthy passive-aggressive behaviours.

As well as distasteful, anger is seen by many as not ‘spiritual’ or ‘enlightened’.

And yet there is anger that purifies the heart … the anger against the false and the wicked, against the tyrant’s sword, against the enemies of love.

– H van Dyke

While we should definitely try to reduce the negative expressions of this energy, it would be unwise to suppress altogether such a basic part of our human nature. It is how we use this force that makes all the difference.

Healthy aggression is the positive impulse to grow, learn and be creative – ultimately to survive in the world. It is what motivates you to assert yourself against personal violation and to fight for your rights. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to face difficulties, make choices or set personal boundaries.

When this natural energy is blocked, it can become toxic and destructive. In other words, we become frustrated, angry and/or depressed.

Depression and anger are closely linked. Sigmund Freud referred to depression as ‘anger turned inwards’, and a 2013 UK study suggests that turning anger inwards increases the severity of depression. People who are affected by depression often have strong inner critics that reinforce feelings of inadequacy and shame. Allowing yourself to feel and express anger at these voices can be liberating, helping you feel more in touch with your real, healthy self.

Recent studies, however, suggest that while depressed people exhibit signs of anger suppression, they also experience more feelings of irritability and hostility than healthier people, particularly if they tend to ruminate over past situations. Symptoms to watch out for include picking fights, being mean or even excessively critical and sarcastic – i.e. putting people down gratuitously.

In my experience, mindfulness meditation can be most helpful in reducing ruminative thoughts and regulating emotions. The practice teaches us to observe every thought and feeling that arises and passes, without reacting or holding on to it. With time, we learn to observe and tame our own minds, rather than allow ourselves to be ruled by them.

To some, this might sound far-fetched. To others, rather simplistic. However, while certain forms of anxiety and depression may well need a pharmacological approach, psychiatry, too, has finally started to recognise the efficacy of this secular, ancient practice.

Nico DN • Coaching