The Age of Anger Should Be Cathartic – So Why Is It Destroying Us?

There is one image from the 2016 US presidential election that has stayed with me above all others. It is in the second TV debate and Hillary Clinton is answering a question. From all camera angles, viewers can see Trump looming behind her – he is unnervingly close, radiating anger and hatred in her personal space. It struck a familiar chord with me, as it no doubt did with many women who have experienced that same kind of invasive intimidation.

In her 2017 memoir, ‘What Happened?’, Clinton recalls her response at the time:

“It was one of those moments where you wish you could hit pause and ask everyone watching: ‘Well, what would you do?’ Do you stay calm, keep smiling and carry on as if he weren’t repeatedly invading your space? Or do you turn, look him in the eye and say loudly and clearly: ‘Back up, you creep. Get away from me. I know you love to intimidate women but you can’t intimidate me.’…I kept my cool, aided by a lifetime of dealing with difficult men trying to throw me off… Maybe I have over-learned the lesson of staying calm, biting my tongue, digging my fingernails into a clenched fist, smiling all the while, determined to present a composed face to the world.”

We are told this is the age of female anger – that #MeToo, Trump, Brexit, abortion referendums and the like have brought about a reckoning. Yet female anger is still portrayed as untrustworthy, a kind of uncontrollable hysteria. Too often we respond to those accusations by, like Hillary, swallowing down our indignation in favour of benign composure.

A prize-winning University of Chicago study found, as recently as 2015, that men and women are perceived differently when they express anger. As part of a jury, participants in the study were tested by being confronted with either a male or female ‘holdout’ member (a dissenting member of the jury working against unanimity). Participants were more likely to doubt their initial judgement after hearing what an angry male jury member had to say, whereas they were more confident in their original decision when a female member of the jury expressed anger during her attempt to change their minds.

In recent years women have, rightly, been discovering and accepting their anger in response to injustice; it is a natural response to feeling as if we’re being treated unfairly. At the sight of Hillary biting back her rage, we expressed ours for her. Since then, the tide has been turning in favour of female anger: the Women’s Marches were an example of how our collective rage can be transformed to deal with injustice constructively and cathartically. Yet there are darker sides to anger, too. With the ubiquity of social media, minute-by-minute news coverage and constant cultural analysis, we are at risk of getting fired up more than is healthy.

Aside from the obvious risks it poses for blood pressure and heart problems, anger has far reaching consequences for mental health. It can be a symptom of mental health problems, particularly if it’s passive – that is, when you ruminate internally but do nothing about it. Small daily annoyances can seem all-consuming. To someone with depression or anxiety, a shopper skipping a queue, a co-worker not pulling their weight, or making a small mistake at work can build into an avalanche of internal turmoil. It’s a vicious cycle, too. This kind of anger makes us more anxious and stressed, both as individuals and as a nation. It is, contrary to belief, the opposite of catharsis.

In this age of division, we are primed for anger and outrage all the time. Dipping into social media can be an exercise in outrage, often about things that have very little impact on our daily lives, or the daily lives of others. We can get riled up about almost anything – a joke misinterpreted to be offensive, an article that clashes with our worldview, a snarky reply to a tweet. In his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson addressed this collective compulsion to use our anger to shame and yell at people on the internet. Discussing the now famous case of Justine Sacco, the PR manager who was fired and exiled from her industry for a year after a badly-worded tweet, he remarked:

“A life had been ruined. What was it for: just some social media drama? I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop. But with social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people.”

Ten years ago, we had far fewer daily opportunities to get angry. Now, on average, people in the US and UK check their phones between 80 and 150 times a day, often using social media as a distraction from more productive past times and, in some cases, doing real damage to people’s health and livelihoods because of our outrage. The rage we direct online to women like Justine Sacco can take on a particularly nasty misogynistic character, too. We mustn’t forget that the internet can be a hostile atmosphere for women when men are allowed a cloak of anonymity.

Furthermore, our mental health suffers when we’re told our anger isn’t valid, as women so often are. Sometimes it’s a partner or a family member telling us we’re crazy, other times it’s ourselves or a follower on Twitter. It can be even worse when the gaslighting is on such a public scale – the more people tell us we’re crazy, the more we start to think we are. On a macro level, the reality that progress is always followed by counter-revolution makes the fight for justice and equality often seem futile. If Obama is to be followed by Trump, if the recognition of same-sex marriage is to be followed by a wave of anti-trans sentiment, if the #MeToo moment is to be followed by a #NotAllMen one, what’s the point? If our rage is constantly being denied by ourselves, those close to us and civic society then the repercussions on our health are immense.

So how do we deal with it?

First, remember that your anger is valid. That’s important. Yet it’s also important to remember that picking our battles will help us fight more effectively for equality in the long run. Staying angry constantly is unhealthy and burns us out faster.

Switching off, using social media more mindfully and finding ways to recognise and stop unproductive anger in its tracks are crucial if we’re to undo the effects of rage on our mental and physical health. It’s not as simple as doing yoga and tuning into the Headspace app every night, but the principles of these activities are important. They force us to take time out for ourselves by mixing up our breathing from short, angry bursts to longer and calmer ones.

Exercise, whether it’s a walk around the block, a boxing class or Pilates, takes us away from screens. If it’s vigorous enough (a term used relatively – one person’s marathon will be someone else’s dance class) it can also distract us from directing anger at ourselves or internalising. By releasing endorphins and narrowing our thought processes to the task in front of us, we are pressing the reset button on our emotions. If you can’t exercise, find another activity that directs your attention. Re-reading a favourite book, gardening or crafting all demand enough energy to keep us focused on the task at hand.

Being mindful of how we use our anger is important, too. If you find yourself getting riled up on social media, force yourself to switch off for at least five minutes. Most of the things we’re responding to aren’t life-changing. At the end of the day you won’t remember half the things that made you angry on Twitter – if you do, go back and respond assertively. Try to remember that anger defies nuance, but it’s nuance that is more important for healing divides and forging understanding, whether it’s with ourselves or other people. While our anger at injustice is perfectly valid, it’s not the most effective tool to fight it.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

Written by Ellen Macpherson. 

Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash