How to use this emotion to stay healthy…
Anger gets a bad rap. If someone says, “You seem angry,” we’re likely to vigorously deny it. Perhaps no emotion, other than shame itself, is more shameful. That’s why we often try to avoid anger at all costs. But we’re now learning that this could be a big mistake.
HOW ANGER AFFECTS US
Even though anger has long been suspected as an underlying cause of depression and anxiety, research now shows that this emotion plays a greater role than once believed in a variety of physical ailments, including heart attacks, stroke, migraines, sleep problems, digestive disorders and diabetes.
A troubling finding: In a study published earlier this year, people who had angry outbursts were almost nine times more likely to suffer a heart attack in the two-hour period afterward than they ordinarily would be.
However: At moderate levels, anger can have very positive effects. It increases strength, speed and stamina. It motivates us to do things we would otherwise consider beyond us and spurs us to go after things we want.
Additionally, people who are not able to express their anger and instead simply ignore it or stuff it down are endangering their physical health. Studies have found that suppressing anger can worsen pain, stress the cardiovascular system and cause anxiety and depression.
So instead of trying to eliminate anger from your life, you need to learn how to get angry the right way.
MAKE ANGER WORK FOR YOU
When thinking about anger, many people confuse emotion and behavior. As an emotion, anger is neither good nor bad. Like any other human feeling, it is natural. What’s essential is knowing your threshold for excessive anger and staying below it. Finding your “sweet spot”—that is, a productive way of stating how you feel without going ballistic—is crucial for protecting your mental and physical health. Here’s how…
STEP 1: Watch for your red flags. Many people aren’t attuned to their emotions. That’s why it’s often simpler to focus on the physical arousal that accompanies anger—an accelerated heart rate, rapid breathing, increased sweating and muscle tension. Also, learn what sets you off. Is it rude, selfish people? Noise, crowds or delays? The earlier you know how you are feeling, the easier it is to control anger.
STEP 2: Don’t beat yourself up. If you become angry enough to say and/or do the wrong thing as you’re learning to work with this emotion, it just means you’re human. Own it and try to repair any damage that’s been done.
STEP 3: Think of angry times as opportunities. The more you practice anger modulation, the more skilled you’ll become. It’s a myth that anger and reason can’t mix. When you realize that you’re angry and it’s still at a moderate level, ask yourself, What do I want in this situation? and act accordingly.
Example: Rather than scream that you have been treated unfairly or stuff your emotions, acknowledge to yourself that there is a reason for you to feel angry and explain to the other person what you want, why you should have it and how what’s wrong could be put right.
STEP 4: Don’t be afraid of your anger. Anger is most easily modulated early on, but it’s rare that even a state of extreme anger is uncontrollable. Almost always, an area of the brain still tracks consequences. And even though anger does raise blood pressure and heart rate, if you keep the emotion within bounds using the strategies below, it will be little more than a passing stressor.
STAYING IN CONTROL
If you feel that your anger is spiraling out of control—or you don’t have an opportunity to deal with it productively—here’s what to do…
• Walk away. Many people (men especially) consider this a sign of weakness. Actually, it shows you’re in control. There’s nothing more powerful than walking away. Helpful: Come up with a simple phrase you can say to yourself that will help you to walk away. It could be something like This just isn’t worth it.
What works well: If you can, get some exercise. Run, walk briskly, swim or lift weights—channeling your physical arousal this way discharges it and brings your body back toward baseline. It’s hard to be in a rage if you’re physically exhausted.
• Focus on your shoulders. When we’re angry, we tense up specific areas of the body—the trapezius muscles that run from the base of the skull to the upper back and shoulders are a hot spot for most people. Even though you can’t consciously control all of your body’s responses, such as sweating and a rapid heart rate, you can make a point to relax this one part of your body. Doing so will help turn down the volume on your whole nervous system and spread relaxation through all your muscles. To relax your shoulders, tense them by bringing them up to your ears, then release. Repeat a few times.
• Escape! In your mind…that is. Just close your eyes and you can go almost anywhere. Choose a place where you feel happy, safe and relaxed—for most people, it’s a nature scene like a beach or clearing in the woods—and imagine it in detail. Invoke all your senses, including the sound of gentle waves and the smell of salty air. With enough practice, you can train your body to relax quickly by imagining this.
TAKE TIME TO PRACTICE
To be able to use the tools described here in the heat of the moment, you may need to develop them while you’re calm. Practice every day for at least 15 minutes.
Excellent resource: For a variety of relaxation exercises, go to Dartmouth.edu.
If your anger is interfering with your personal relationships and/or your job, you may need professional help. Consult the American Psychological Association, APA.org, to find a qualified therapist.