We all lose our cool now and then.
True, the occasional anger-induced tantrum is an inescapable part of human life, experts say.
Yet there is a distinction between normal anger and anger that’s unhealthy and destructive.
“Anger, in general, is healthy,” explains Dr. Carole D. Stovall, a Washington, D.C.-based psychologist who consults individuals and corporations on issues such as anger management. “Just like sadness or happiness, it’s a normal emotion. Where people get into trouble is when anger becomes a behavior that is physically, verbally or emotionally inappropriate.
“If somebody accidentally bumps us in the subway, that’s an irritation, but if we explode over that, it’s clearly more than that person bumping us,” explains Stovall, noting that chronic and excessive anger usually indicates deeper issues in a person’s life.
“It’s a complex mix of many different things having to do with our emotions, environmental factors–stress, racism–all those things enter into the equation,” she says.
Over time, unchecked anger carries a host of consequences. High blood pressure, cardiovascular disorders and heart disease, aggravation to diabetes, kidney malfunction, urinary problems, weakened immune system, digestive disorders, prolonged headaches and even cancer are among the health problems associated with chronic anger.
“When we’re angry, there’s damage done to the systems that keep us healthy,” says psychologist Dr. Ernest H. Johnson of Raleigh, NC, author of Brothers on the Mend: Understanding and Healing Anger for African American Men and Women. “So we’re more prone to cancer, including this prostate problem that a lot of men are going through. In the end, for many people who have problems really expressing and dealing with their feelings, there’s early mortality–dropping dead from a stroke or a heart attack, kidney disease or breast cancer.”
At the severe end of the spectrum, people who have serious trouble dealing with their anger can become a menace not only to themselves, but to others. Time and time again we have witnessed the deadly effects of anger-triggered violence in schools, workplaces, even in our homes.
“Sure, they’re killing themselves slowly with hypertension and heart disease, but some people accelerate the process and take a gun and commit suicide or kill other people because they’re essentially venting their feelings,” says Dr. Johnson, who also heads a national project, P.E.A.C.E. (People Excelling in Academic and Character Education) Keepers For The New Millennium, which teaches children to solve conflicts with love rather than anger or violence.
Chronic anger can have an equally devastating effect on the health of our relationships, especially those with our spouses and children.
“Anger can tear [couples and families] apart,” Stovall says. “And when you have aggression in the family, you then have a whole generation of children who see how the parents respond to things as a model for how they should react.”
Statistics bear out this fact. According to Dr. Johnson, for a girl who grows up seeing her mother abused by her father the odds are well over a 1000 percent that that girl will attract abusive men in her life. For boys who witness abuse, the odds are also more than 1000 percent that they will be abusive as adults.
“The ruin of our nations starts in the homes of our peoples,” Johnson says. “We then take the problem to our streets, to our jobs, to our schools.”
The good news is that we don’t have to let anger ruin our lives. We can learn to vent those strong feelings in a constructive rather than destructive way.
“It’s important for people to keep in mind that while anger is a feeling that everybody has, aggression is a choice,” says Stovall. “Aggression is a behavior that we learn to engage in, and we can learn not to engage in it.”
The best way to deal with anger is to prevent it from occurring in the first place. And the best way to accomplish that, experts say, is with education and communication.
“People get in trouble with their anger when they don’t communicate with themselves what’s going on,” says Stovall. “We need to figure out internally what we’re feeling and why, and be able to put words to those physical sensations. If we’re not able to do that, it’s hard to share with somebody else what it is that they’re doing that’s upsetting us.”
If you think you may have a problem dealing with your anger, experts say don’t delay in seeking help.
“Empower yourself and educate yourself that this is a problem not to be ignored and there are so many ill consequences, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually,” Johnson says. “We’re upset about things that are completely unimportant and it’s hurting us. Just remember that the fire that you burn in your heart for your enemy will often burn you first.”
How To Keep Your Anger In Check
Experts say the best way to deal with anger is by avoiding stressful situations altogether. When that’s not possible, you can keep a level head in tense times by employing some simple de-escalation techniques.
[check] Know your anger warning signs: edginess, headache, perspiration, teeth grinding, muscle tension and lightheadedness can signal when you’re close to the edge.
[check] Stop, breathe, then leave. Stop from saying or doing anything you know you will regret. Breathe deeply and slowly. Count to 10, recite a mantra, say your favorite prayer to take your mind off the stress. Remove yourself from the source of the stress. Leave the room, take a walk, go somewhere you can cool down.
[check] Talk slower and softer. If you find a discussion is getting heated, deliberately slow down and lower your voice to keep things under control.
[check] Relax. Squeeze, then relax each part of your body to release the tension. Shake your limbs. Stretch your arms and legs, gently roll your neck.
[check] Avoid alcohol or drugs when you’re upset, which decrease your mental control and increase your chances of doing something rash.
[check] Manage your time wisely. Reduce the stress of commuting, conducting business, shopping and work assignments by giving yourself enough time to get things done.
[check] Get enough rest. Fatigue fosters irritability and decreases your ability to cope with stress.
[check] Exercise. Regular fitness reduces overall stress and tension in your life.
[check] Talk out your stress. Discussing problems with friends, loved ones or even a therapist helps reduce their effect on our lives.