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Go ahead and feel the anger — it will encourage social change

Go ahead and feel the anger — it will encourage social change
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Just after yet another unfathomable school shooting in the U.S., Speaker of the House Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanElection Countdown: Takeaways from heated Florida governor's debate | DNC chief pushes back on 'blue wave' talk | Manchin faces progressive backlash | Trump heads to Houston rally | Obama in Las Vegas | Signs of huge midterm turnout Will the Federal Reserve make a mistake by shifting to inflation? Sanders: Democrats ‘absolutely’ have chance to win back rural America  MORE implored, “This is one of those moments where we just need to step back and count our blessings. We need to think less about taking sides and fighting each other politically and just pulling together.”   

As a professor of Medical Social Sciences at Northwestern University and an expert in the benefits of positive emotion in response to stressful life events, I teach people how to cope better with stress through doing things like finding the good in a difficult situation, savoring positive events and, yes, even counting their blessings.

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And, to be sure, my research has shown that practicing these skills can lead to less depression, higher levels of positive emotion and happiness and may even result in better physical health. In general, counting one’s blessings is good advice.

 

As with other responses that increase positive emotion, looking on the proverbial bright side helps to buffer stress and psychological pain and can, no doubt, make you feel better in the moment.

But, the inclination to seek a quick fix, and move ourselves into a sunnier mental space comes at a long-term cost. Simply, anger and other so-called “negative” emotions also have benefits and should not be suppressed, ignored, or denied, either.

Anger, despite its reputation, is not a bad thing. When faced with the repeated tragedy of mass shootings, complex feelings of anger, sadness, fear, and disgust are common, normal, and important to allow, not only for our own well-being, but in order to work towards real and impactful change.

Anger is a signal from the psyche that something needs to be changed or addressed and if we instead focus solely on trying to feel better at the expense of feeling the feelings that motivate us, we are not likely to act, nor heal.

Major societal changes such as the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, and, more recently, more open discussion of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace have been fueled by widespread anger coming to a head and spilling over into action.

To be sure, anger, like other emotions, also has its drawbacks and certainly, we should not use anger to justify violence or revenge.

And for many of us, anger and other emotions designated as “negative” are uncomfortable to experience and to observe in others (Women, in particular, are judged more harshly for expressing anger than men) so we tend to search for ways to avoid those feelings and discourage others from showing them.

In order to resist the social expectation of denying or quickly getting past anger, and to overcome our own discomfort with it, we must understand that emotional experience is not as simple as being positive or negative but that seemingly contradictory emotions can co-occur, even in moments of the most extreme life stress.

It is possible to feel inspiration, hope, and gratitude alongside rage, frustration, fear, and sadness and by allowing and recognizing such seemingly conflicting emotions help us cope better with even the most traumatic events.

There is even evidence that suggests people who allow experience a broad spectrum of emotions, both positive and negative, are physically healthier, too.

We must recognize that we can all benefit from emotions like anger as much as positive emotions like gratitude. In times of stress we need to allow ourselves the full range of emotional experience and encourage those around us to do the same.

Young people who are speaking out and working towards meaningful change in the aftermath of this most recent shooting seem to be doing this very thing, that is, experiencing and expressing a wide array of emotions, encouraging full expression of feelings in those around them, and channeling their emotions into action.

The rest of us can learn from them, and allow ourselves to experience the full range of human emotions, then allow them to guide us productively. So let us go ahead and count our blessings, but let’s not let that blunt the anger that motivates us to be most engaged in the world.

Judith T. Moskowitz is a professor of Medical Social Sciences at Northwestern University and Director of Research at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. She is a Public Voices fellow.