It is well known that conflict is inevitable in life and relationships. Did you know, however, that it also has a positive impact on both your health and the length of your life?
The key lies in how anger is expressed in conflict.
Whereas conflict that produces high levels of emotional stress has a reverse effect on the development of brain cells, low levels of conflict seems to stimulate healthy cell development in the brain.
A few key attributes of anger:
Anger is an innate emotion experienced by all human beings, to some degree daily, regardless of gender or age. Even new-born babies experience anger.
- More than other emotions, anger is associated with personal power. You experience it when you perceive some action or situation as unfair.
- Anger is essential to the operation of your body. It moves you to action to ensure that, to the best of your ability, you get certain core emotional drives met, i.e., for recognition, esteem, acceptance, and so on.
- Anger is an instinct that ensures you both survive—and maintain your momentum to thrive when you encounter obstacles.
- Unlike other emotions, anger is a secondary emotion. It’s there to help you move past emotions, such as fear, shame, hurt, that may otherwise paralyze you from taking action to protect or stand up for yourself or someone you care about.
Taking this into consideration, it may not be as surprising to learn that a heated discussion every now and then, whether it’s with a family member or a colleague, contributes to your health.
“Relationships have important influences on how we feel on a daily basis, especially the problems in our relationships. How we deal with problems affects our daily well-being.” Dr. Kira Birditt, University of Michigan
A study of the effects of avoiding anger on longevity:
- In the January 2008 issue of Journal of Family Communication, Dr. Ernest Harburg published results from a survey showing husbands and wives who expressed their anger lived longer than those who were less expressive.
The study followed nearly 200 couples over a period of 17 years. Couples were divided into three groups of those in which: (1) both expressed their anger, (2) one partner expressed anger and the other withdrew, and (3) both suppressed their anger.
Results showed that twenty-five percent of the couples in the “suppressed” group died in this period of time compared to only twelve percent for the remaining two groups.
A study of the effects of avoiding anger on physical health:
- In a more recent study, presented at the 118th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, August 2010, Dr. Kira Birditt set out to study the effects of avoiding conflict. Using a national sample of nearly 1900 adults, data was collected from surveys and saliva samples over a period of four days.
They found avoiding conflict was the most common response to problems! Findings also showed those who avoided dealing with issues experienced more physical complaints the following day than those who actually engaged in heated conflict. Reported symptoms included physical symptoms of nausea, aches and pains.
Findings also showed that avoidance was associated with abnormal rises and falls of the stress hormone cortisol throughout the day. It appears that, compared to those who expressed their anger, cortisol levels for those who avoided conflict spiked early in the morning dropped at much slower rate throughout the day
A study of the positive effects of low levels of anger:
- In another example, Drs. Wesley Moons and Diane Mackie published results of three experiments in the June 2007 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that examined anger influenced thinking and decision-making.
Participants were asked to assess situations that required them to use their analytical skills. They were divided into two groups. One group was first exposed to a situation that angered them, and the other was not.
Those with heightened levels of anger showed sharper abilities in discriminating between sound and unsound logic whereas those who were not angry were less analytical in their assessments. It appears that, though high levels of anger increase negative thinking, mistrust, prejudice and risk taking, low levels of anger helps the brain separate out cues that are relevant and focus on what really matters in decision making.
Healthy conflict stimulates cell development in the brain. When anger is not expressed and conflict remains unresolved, or when you bury or stew on issues instead, or accrue pools of resentment inside, it has deleterious effects on health. Withdrawal from conflict can intensify stress, and negatively impact physical health, and shorten the life span.
In case that’s not reason enough, consider this. Avoiding conflict blocks essential processes that the human brain depends on, according to Daniel J. Siegel, MD, as it is “a social organ” that heals and rewires itself in these integrative processes. Dr. Siegel also states:
“The human mind emerges from patterns in the flow of energy and information within the brain and between brains.”
On the other hand, anger that regularly blasts others, with harsh criticism, and the like, also poses risks to personal and relational health.
The solution of course is to think of anger as a positive force in your life. Learn to regulate, feel and express anger assertively, and you will experience its positive effects on your health and enhance your decision-making skills, optimism and confidence in handling conflict.
To top it off, the benefits include enriching your relationships.
Siegel, Daniel J. (1999). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. NY: Guilford Press.