The Secret to Keeping Your Cool When You’re Mad

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The Problem: Anger hurts, but it’s also helpful.

The Science: Anger stresses our bodies out and clouds our minds.

The Solution: Here’s how to reap the good and leave the bad.

We all know the situation: something happened that made us upset, we go over it in our mind, we blow our top, we say things we don’t mean, we exhaust ourselves and, ultimately, we usually end up regretting something that we said or did (or what we didn’t say!)

Anger, of course, has its place. After all, as researchers have found, it alerts you to the fact that something may be wrong and can help motivate you to take action in the face of unfairness. However, it also takes its toll. In many ways, it looks like a heightened stress response. It increases our blood pressure and heart rate and cellular inflammatory processes and — when it happens too frequently — leads to an increased chance of heart disease. Not to mention that it just makes us mad and ruins our day — or even weeks and months if you harbor resentment for a long time.

So how can we reap the benefits of anger without succumbing to its dangers? Forgiveness. Sounds simple but research shows there is a lot to it.

For one, forgiveness seems to counteract the effects of anger on a physical level by lowering your blood pressure and on a psychological level by increasing your positive emotions. Research shows that people who are more forgiving have fewer negative emotions overall and therefore tend to do better in relationships. Another way it improves your social life is that forgiveness tends to make people kinder and more giving.

Anger overwhelms us and takes over our life. It makes us “hold on” to the situation we wish would have happened differently, the person we are angry with, or even ourselves. We can’t let go. As a consequence, we go about our life with a cloud over our head even if other things are going relatively well. For example, you are mad at a colleague and you bring your anger home. There, instead of enjoying dinner with the spouse and children you love, you spend your time brooding over someone you don’t — thereby wasting precious moments with your family. However, research shows that forgiveness can help you let go. It can help you move on from upsetting situations more easily so you can reap full enjoyment of the other aspects of your life. You literally lighten up. One study even showed that learning to forgive actually helps people perceive hills as less steep. They are even able to jump higher. While the psychological burden of anger weighs you down, forgiveness lightens your step.

Most importantly, though, is self-forgiveness. Often, when we get angry and do something we regret, we turn our anger on ourselves. Not only does this tendency not help us, it further damages our health and well-being.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean not taking action to rectify a situation, or not speaking your mind to someone. It does mean, however, that you will do so from a calmer and more thoughtful space, probably reaping better results. Most importantly, you will be happier.


This article originally appeared at Psychology Today

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Emma Seppälä

Emma Seppälä

EMMA SEPPÄLÄ, Ph.D. is the author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success and Science Director of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. She also teaches at Yale University and consults with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She founded Fulfillment Daily and a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today.
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