Anger is like fire. It can be as helpful as it can be harmful.

According to a 2018 NPR-IBM Watson Health poll, 42% of Americans said they were angrier in the past year than years prior. Nearly 70% said they considered anger a negative emotion.

But, says Julie Baumgardner, president and CEO of First Things First, "Anger is 100% not bad. It's what you do with that anger that makes it either positive or not positive."

First Things First is a local nonprofit that teaches healthy-relationship skills through a variety of classes. In recent years, Baumgardner says she has had more students asking questions about managing anger.

She believes this increase is partly due to lack of downtime.

"People [today] feel guilty for doing nothing," she says. And then during free time, children, teens and adults alike are often on their screens.

Anger by the numbers

* 84% say Americans are angrier today than a generation ago

* 42% say they were angrier in 2018 than in years prior

* 29% say the news often makes them angry

* 70% believe anger is a negative emotion>* 90% say they are more likely to express their anger on social media than in person

Source: 2018 nationwide NPR-IBM Watson Health poll

Screen time is not downtime, Baumgardner stresses. In fact, research shows that smartphones elevate our daily stress levels. Apps and notifications are known to trigger the release of chemicals such as dopamine, linked to addiction; and cortisol, linked to stress.

"People's fuses are shorter. It's like we're always on the verge, and if one thing happens that isn't in my plan today, I'll just lose it! A decade, two decades ago, people had some margin in their lives; they could adapt and adjust better," says Baumgardner, who has been helping local families resolve conflict for more than 20 years.

The goal with anger, she says, is not to extinguish it, but to manage it.

To help make your anger more productive, here is a guide to understanding one of humans' most primal emotions.


The biology of anger

Anger is an essential emotion. It alerts us to injustice and empowers us to take action. But what actually happens in our bodies when we start seeing red?

First, your muscles tense, your blood pressure rises and your heart rate and breathing accelerate. Meanwhile, your brain begins to release certain chemicals such as adrenaline. This provides a quick burst of energy and initiates the fight-or-flight response.

When we're angry, our minds focus and we are able to react quickly to perceived threats. In an evolutionary sense, anger equips our bodies to power through frustrating challenges.


Root causes of anger

Anger is a secondary emotion, says Baumgardner, meaning it is a reaction to other emotions. Taking the time to determine the root cause of anger helps establish a more clear-headed approach on how to handle it.

"Put words to your anger. Did you feel disappointed? Disrespected?" she says.

Common root causes include fear, pain, betrayal and rejection.


The do's and don'ts of expression


1. Do be self-aware.

Anger looks different on everybody. But, "we all have warning signs that we're getting overheated," Baumgardner says. "Your mouth might get dry, your palms might get sweaty. You might feel like you want to punch something. Your brain is trying to tell you something. Pay attention. And if you can, time yourself out.

"I know that if I'm really tired or super-stressed, I'm not going to be great about dealing with my anger," she adds. "So maybe I need to take a walk or count backwards from 100 before I respond."


2. Don't catastrophize.

Catastrophizing is the tendency to exaggerate the effect of an event. Take traffic, for example. If a slowdown on the interstate threatens to put you behind schedule, is that really going to ruin your entire day? Or is it just an inconvenience? Studies have shown that catastrophizing is more likely to lead to unhealthy, even violent, expressions of anger.

When irritations start to arise, trying to imagine the most rational outcome of the event can avoid turning mild frustrations into fury.


3. Do express your feelings.

"When you stuff your feelings, that's not healthy," says Baumgardner. "Eventually you will explode like a volcano."

There are, however, constructive — and nonconstructive — ways to express oneself.

"Don't be sarcastic," she says. "If your spouse says something they think is funny but that hurts your feelings, instead of saying, 'Thanks a lot for embarrassing me!' say 'That hurt because it felt like you were making fun of me.' Those are going to be two very different conversations."

And remember, she adds, words are like toothpaste. "Once they're out of the tube, they're not going back in."


4. Don't exacerbate your anger.

In addition to catastrophizing, blaming others and keeping score will only make anger worse.

"We need to be accountable and responsible for our own behavior," says Baumgardner. "If you played a role in what went down, be big enough to say it. If you're the one who was offended, be willing to accept an apology."