Do you fly into a rage when cut off in traffic? Fume when your colleague is late to the meeting?
Anger is an emotion everyone experiences from time to time. Arming yourself with knowledge about how to process the emotion, its physical results in the body, and at what point to seek medical help will allow you to control your anger - and not the other way around.
In an interview with the American Psychological Association (APA), Howard Kassinove, Ph.D., Director of Hofstra University’s Institute for the Study and Treatment of Anger and Aggression, highlighted the difference between anger and aggression.
Anger, according to Kassinove, is “a negative feeling state typically associated with hostile thoughts, physiological arousal and maladaptive behaviors,” while aggression is a purposeful action in response to that feeling.
Aggression implies real intent to harm others, while anger is the emotional state potentially leading to aggressive behavior.
Anger usually stems from a response to the actions of another that are perceived as disrespectful or threatening. It can be a positive emotion when we need to protect or defend ourselves or others, but if handled incorrectly, in can cause serious problems, both in relationships with others and individual health.
Anger in the Body
When you experience the emotion anger, it can have very real physical responses in the body.
According to the APA, the feeling of anger increases the heart rate and blood pressure, along with adrenaline and noradrenaline levels. Painful headaches and muscle tension are a common physical result of anger.
While a headache stemming from anger might be an infrequent occurrence for most, this emotion could have long term effects on the body if it becomes a regular part of life.
Kassinove told the APA that over time, persistent or enduring anger could affect various body functions, including the immune, digestive, cardiovascular and central nervous systems.
“This will lead to increased risks of hypertension and stroke, heart disease, gastric ulcers, and bowel diseases, as well as slower wound healing and a possible increased risk of some types of cancers,” said Kassinove.
If anger can build up in the body over time, and is surely an emotion everyone will experience on occasion, then it is important to understand how the emotion is processed effectively.
The APA reports that there are three major ways to deal with anger: expressing, suppressing and calming.
If you can express anger in an assertive, but non-aggressive way, this is the healthiest option. This involves learning how to communicate your needs and how to meet them without harming other people. Doing so in a way respectful of both yourself and others will allow you to work through the emotion effectively.
Holding your anger in and suppressing it with distracting thoughts of something else can have unintended negative effects. Though attempting to turn the anger into something positive, leaving it unexpressed can lead to turning the emotion inward. The APA reports that attempting to deal with anger in this way can increase risks of hypertension, high blood pressure and depression.
Suppressed anger can also lead to cynicism, passive-aggressive tendencies, and an overall negative outlook - none of which are keys in maintaining healthy relationships. These pathological expressions of the emotion can significantly damage relationships with others.
The third option when it comes to expressing anger is simply to calm down. According to the APA, “This means not just controlling your outward behavior, but also controlling your internal responses, taking steps to lower your heart rate, calm yourself down, and let the feelings subside.”
Tips for Managing Anger
The Mayo Clinic has a wealth of knowledge on how to take control of and express your anger, including using humor (though not sarcasm) to diffuse a tense situation.
Relaxation techniques like breath exercises, visualization, calming mantras, journaling or yoga all can help you keep cool and allow anger to subside.
Yoga can also help in another way - exercise is powerful tool for controlling anger.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “physical activity stimulates various brain chemicals that can leave you feeling happier and more relaxed than you were before you worked out,” and exercise can be an effective outlet for your feelings.
More internal methods for handling anger include getting to the bottom of the actual issue. Instead of fixating on the trigger igniting your anger, explore what the real issue is and search for solutions to the core problem.
Forgiveness can also be a huge way to release anger. The Mayo Clinic reports, “If you allow anger and other negative feelings to crowd out positive feelings, you might find yourself swallowed up by your own bitterness or sense of injustice. But if you can forgive someone who angered you, you might both learn from the situation.”
Knowing When to Get Help
There is no way to avoid anger 100% of the time.
When it is occasional, mild, passes quickly and is expressed in a healthy way, though maybe unpleasant, this is probably just a normal processing of the emotion.
However, for some, anger can become an insurmountable issue in their lives, at which point professional assistance is needed.
Kassinove told APA that “if your anger is moderate to intense, experienced frequently, endures to the point where you are holding a grudge and are planning to get even, and is expressed in aggressive verbal and physical actions, then there is cause for alarm. You are likely at risk for the negative relationship, health and sometimes legal repercussions related to inappropriate anger expression.”
Talking to a psychologist or counselor or participating in an Anger Management course can help. The APA reports that with therapy, a very angry patient can move into a more average range of anger in only eight to ten weeks.
When looking for treatment, the Mayo Clinic suggests checking with your employee assistance program (EAP), state agencies or clergy for recommendations.
With proper attention and knowledge, anger can go from an uncontrollable erupting volcano to a puff of smoke that passes quickly.
By being aware, remembering anger control techniques, and not being afraid to seek help when needed, anger can stay an infrequent and inconsequential emotion.