Anger: A Hidden Public Health Issue

woman looking angry

In 2008 the Mental Health Foundation identified a fundamental lack of discussion in the scientific literature related to anger, which they suggested was indicative of it not being considered ‘an emotional issue worthy of scientific conceptualisation and attention’. Over ten years on, there is still relatively little known compared to issues such as anxiety and stress. This is despite anger being identified as one of our most powerful emotions, and a growing body of research finding strong links to physical, mental and social ill-health.

In common schools of thought, anger is linked to our survival and viewed as beneficial for indicating danger/’wrong’/injustice, in situations and motivating action. Within a ‘normal range’, anger is understood as simply part of the human experience. In other schools of thought, it is a destructive emotion to be overcome, with constructive emotions such as compassion thought to be just as powerful indicators and motivators. The first school of thought does recognise, however, the need to address ‘problem’ anger; anger that is experienced frequently and intensely, and that interferes with thinking, feeling, behaviour and relationships. 

Problem anger, on the basis of this understanding, would seem to accord with criteria for mental ill-health, however, it is rarely recognised as such. Consequently, there is very limited data on how common it is and who it affects among the population. Indeed, like loneliness, it can perhaps be regarded as a largely ‘hidden’ public health issue. Understanding problem anger, and especially its outward expression in aggressive behaviour, have been attempted largely from a criminal justice perspective. While anger is an emotion, and aggression is a type of behaviour, the two are often confused and merged together. This is cited as a reason why underlying, entrenched anger goes largely unaddressed, while aggressive behaviour is punished. This is a theme reflected within school settings as well the criminal justice system.

The outward expression of anger in aggressive behaviour, which is perhaps the most commonly recognised expression, hides the complexity of this emotion. For some people, anger is actually expressed through retreating and unresponsiveness. Furthermore, anger can be directed ‘inward’ as well as ‘outward’. In today’s society, anger at the self would appear commonplace and, concerningly, research shows links between self-directed anger and self-harm, depression and eating disorders.

On a positive note, anger is an emotion for which there are ‘antidotes’ and there is research on the efficacy and effectiveness of established interventions and therapies. Developing positive strategies for working with this emotion, and especially learning how to do so from a young age, can be beneficial for individuals themselves and societies more broadly, leading to more happiness and less conflict. 

Studying anger at this point in time would seem extremely important. According to polling, public perceptions are that the British public are becoming angrier and more aggressive. Recent research has additionally found that the strain of Covid 19 has led to increased anger and confrontation, further exacerbating the issue. Even before the pandemic, there was evidence of a growth of anger in the workplace and on the roads. Also, and especially affecting adolescents, expressions of anger have been increasingly observed online – in gaming and on social media platforms. 

The remit of public health practitioners is very broad and ever evolving. Perhaps it is time for problem anger to rise up the agenda, given the destructive impact it can have on those who experience it, as well as those around them. 

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Written by Dr Sharon Wheeler, programme leader in BSc (Hons) Public Health and Wellbeing and MSc Health, Mental Health and Wellbeing at Wrexham Glyndwr University.