Our brains want us to keep calm. But to make a change, we need to keep angry

Funnel your frustration.
Funnel your frustration.
Image: Reuters/Andrew Kelly
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These days, a lot of people are thinking about how best to make a change in the world. Some might imagine that it’s best to try to rise above emotions like anger and fear and focus on taking action. But science suggests that embracing feelings of frustration can actually help you make an impact.

When it comes to critical conversations about the complex and important questions of our time—morality, rights, justice, ethics, and the sustainability of our planet—our emotional states impact our likelihood to act. From fear to love, a cocktail of neurochemicals  both motivate and disable our bodies and minds. And sometimes, embracing frustration instead of going with the flow is what’s needed to make a change in the world.

Our bodies would always prefer to be in their desired state of homeostasis. When you’re angry or agitated, your brain wants to resolve the hyper-aroused state it’s in. This means you’re more likely to be motivated to do something to change that state and bring you back to homeostasis. But when you feel that everything is all right, you’re less likely to be motivated to take action. Your brain has already decided that conditions are good, so you can therefore go back to seeking out pleasure and avoiding things you don’t like.

Our actions or inaction help determine the direction the world takes. If we quickly accept a new normalized state of being in order to avoid the discomfort of being frustrated or angry, we put ourselves in a dangerous position of inaction. If you let your mind say that everything will be okay, tune out, and coast back to a relaxed state of mind, no change is ever going to come of the world.

There are two physiological states of being that govern this pattern. The first is the stress response “fight, flight, or freeze,” which is triggered by a perceived danger. This happens when the amygdala (a critical part of our emotional response center) reacts to stimuli and decides what to do based on a memory it recalls from the hippocampus (which holds the slideshow of life’s experiences). When perceived to be under threat, the amygdala freaks out, triggers the sympathetic nervous system into action, and sends a flood of chemicals to either make you run away, be paralyzed by fear, or stand up and fight.

The little-known opposite state from this is the “rest and digest“ (also referred to as “feed and breed”) response, which is governed by your parasympathetic nervous system. The comfortable feeling of contentment you get after eating a good meal or having sex is “rest and digest” kicking in, rewarding you with happy chemicals for having accomplished biologically motivated activities of sustenance and procreation.

Frustration can be a good emotional state once you realize it is a driver for action. Comfort, on the other hand, is often a disabler. Being agitated, frustrated, or even aggressive can ignite action and serve as an antidote to apathetic disassociation that slowly creeps in the longer we stay in the rest state. Constant anxiety is not good for us, but the increased neurological activity associated with an activated arousal state could result in more action-orientated activities.

We should therefore learn how to recode the energy investment of frustration to activate agency rather than be paralyzed with inertia. If you want to make and see change around you, then you need to embrace frustrated, stressed states rather than ignoring them or willing them away. It’s a costly energy investment for you brain to get agitated, so while it’s firing on all cylinders, use that investment wisely.

Making changes to your cognitive functioning is initially neurologically taxing. But with the proper time and energy investment, you can quickly motivate your reward system to seek out joy in complexity and reward in the unknown. If you want to see change in the world, you have to change yourself first—which means accepting the uncomfortable emotions that our brains are constantly trying to avoid.