Anger is usually considered a negative emotion — something which needs to be restrained or at least “managed.” Our aversion to anger is sensible. Persistent rage can take a toll on our body and mind, and on our relationships: Studies link chronic anger to depression, lower back pain, sexual dysfunction, and more; other studies find fiery outbursts can spark cardiac arrest and strokes.

All anger isn't equal, however. There are destructive and productive forms of anger.

Anger-management expert John Schinnerer, PhD, who served because the psychological consultant for the animated Pixar film Inside Out, differentiates chronic irritability — a long-term outlook seen as a perceiving the world through a hostile, persecutory lens — and the momentary angry response, which all of us exhibit from time to time.

Anger of the flash-in-the-pan variety is not only normal; it has some real benefits.

That burst of anger triggers battery power of physiological responses, including increased heartbeat and blood pressure, which are essential to keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe. If we learn that our child has been bullied or we catch a pickpocket snagging our wallet, reacting with anger can be both adaptive and productive.

Anger is helpful not just in moments of duress but also in the broader scheme of our relationships. For one thing, exasperation may compel us to state how we feel instead of bottling it in. And when we express those feelings respectfully (think going for a deep breath, saying our piece, then listening to what the other person has to say), our anger helps to promote growth and change and may even contribute to a longer life.

Asserting anger productively requires some backwards and forwards, but if we do it calmly and assertively, says Schinnerer, “it will help us speak up for what we need and let others know when our boundaries are being violated.”

Anger also deserves credit for providing a proverbial kick in the butt, especially in comparison towards the paralyzing effect of other negative emotions.

Take sadness. Feeling blue generally leads us to view life through what psychologists call an “external locus of control,” or perhaps a belief that good or bad things occur because of factors beyond our control. Anger does the opposite, corresponding with an “internal locus of control” — the belief that we have a say in what happens to us.

“Being mad can [also] be great for society; it motivates us to work toward positive change,” notes Schinnerer. “Things like #MeToo or the civil rights movement wouldn’t exist without anger.”

Still, it’s vital that you distinguish between anger as an impetus for positive change and anger as a catalyst for heart disease, damaged relationships, or perhaps a fist-size hole in the wall.

To differentiate between normal, healthy anger and chronic irritability, Schinnerer encourages us to consider three elements of our anger:

  • Duration, or how long the emotion lasts.
  • Frequency, or how often it happens.
  • Intensity, or how strongly you have it.

Intensity is especially important, explains Schinnerer, since it helps us think about anger in context.

“There’s a noticeable difference between being intensely angry about something similar to racial injustice or sexual harassment and flying off the handle every time you get caught in traffic. One way to maintain perspective is to think about, ‘Will this matter in 5 years?’”

Ultimately, the key to using anger productively rather than destructively lies in being mindful of our feelings and getting a healthy way to release them before they get too big. Schinnerer encourages us growing a habit of rating our anger because it arises, using a scale of just one to 10.

“I tell clients to convey themselves before they reach a 5. This way they speak up for which they need while they’re still relatively calm.”

When we channel our frustration instead of letting it fester, we can turn what feels like a negative emotion into something powerful and productive. Sometimes that won't amount to much more than a sternly worded email to customer service, but as long as we get it out somehow there’s pointless to fear angry feelings.

“It’s not about anger being good or bad,” explains Schinnerer. “It’s that which you do with it that matters.”

Productive or Destructive Anger: Five Ways to Tell

  1. How does your anger affect others? Productive anger leads to positive outcomes like compromise, empathy, even intimacy. Destructive anger leads to others feeling afraid, disrespected, or hurt.
  2. On an anger scale of 1 to 10, can you differentiate between level 2 and level 9? This involves cultivating awareness around how anger feels in your body at every stage. (For instance, at a low level, your teeth might clench; in a medium level, your hands might shake; at a high level, it might be difficult to breathe).
  3. Do you consistently hold back until you're at a 5 (or higher) before you say how you feel? Should you frequently let yourself stew – or stew then spew – your anger is probably more destructive than productive.
  4. Do you often blame others for your angry feelings – or the consequences? Anger can be empowering, as long as you take ownership of it.
  5. Do you accept anger as a natural, human emotion or would you push it away? If you feel ashamed of yourself every time you experience anger, you're more prone to shut out the underlying messages your anger is attempting to communicate (That isn't fair! This doesn't feel right!)