By Joanne Chen
Whether it's Wall Street bonuses, the Gulf oil fiasco, or cultural icons (David Letterman! Tiger Woods! Al Gore?!) flagrantly cheating on their wives, Americans have more reason than ever to be pissed off - a sentiment Charles Speilberger, Ph.D., University of South Florida psychologist, says we're also quicker than ever to express. As coeditor of the recently published International Handbook of Anger - just one of the new releases examining our current age of rage - he should know. Because not only are there more reasons to get angry today, there are more outlets for it as well, from social media to reality TV to books, including Koren Zailckas' tellingly titled memoir, Fury, out this month. Anger, it seems, is the new sex: It sells. And none of us, especially women, can get enough - just check out the bonanza ratings enjoyed by any reality show in which there's even the potential for a hissy fit. So how will we ever calm down, and, more importantly, do we even want to? Take a deep breath (or two), and we'll tell you.
WHAT'S MAKING YOU MAD
(And How to Stop It)
Once upon a time, we told each other off in person. Discussions grew heated, doors were slammed, and we moved on. Now, with so much of our daily communication done via e-mail, texting, or Facebook, many of the impulse controls we'd normally employ in confrontations have gone out the window. "Electronic media disinhibit the expression of anger," says Michael Potegal, Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics and neurology at the University of Minnesota. Alone, typing angry thoughts to a friend or a loved one, we don't have the benefit of seeing a facial reaction, reading body language, or hearing a voice - we're wearing conversational blinders, so we end up typing things we'd never say in person.
This, in turn, breeds an anger-making dynamic all its own. Scott Wetzler, Ph.D., department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at New York City's Montefiore Medical Center, calls this sort of one-sided expression of emotion "venting." When we e-mail or text, which allows us to ignore the other side of the argument, "we feel justified; the more justified we feel, the angrier we get." What's more, typing a thoughtful response to your boyfriend in the heat of an argument is particularly tough when shorthand expressions (whatev!) roll so easily off the fingers. Soon, our inbox and Twitter feeds can devolve into rage-filled echo chambers, leaving us feeling vulnerable and guilty over things we wish we could un-type.
And according to University of Minnesota researchers, even cell-phone communication is fraught with risk. Chatting as we run errands may make us feel like great multitaskers, but the reality is that it means we take longer to react. Add poor sound quality and other distractions into the mix, and you have a recipe for misinterpretations and unintended interruptions - all of which, researchers say, lead to "hurt feelings, conflict, and misunderstandings." What's more, the fallout from this is often hardest on women: Says Ray Novaco, Ph.D., professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine, women relive angry incidents more, and stay angry longer, than men do.
And then there's the media. News networks, once reliably neutral and unemotional, now inflame public sentiment with sensationalized coverage of the conflict du jour, be it General McChrystal's attacks on Obama's team or the latest Tea Party shoutfest. Broadcasters, embattled by competition from the Internet, now cater to niche audiences, making the nightly news feel like a personal attack. How else to explain the transformation of MSNBC from an outlet for unbiased news coverage to one whose sole purpose seems to be feeding the flames? Or the fact that instead of Campbell Brown's levelheaded reporting at 8 p.m., CNN will be serving up one of politics' most divisive hotheads, Eliot Spitzer? Clearly, if you want people to tune in to the news these days, you need to give them something to shout about.
It's as though news divisions have stolen a page from reality TV - once just a simple pleasure, but now a major force feeding the anger in the air, with ratings through the roof. Any TV producer knows that a heated smackdown between two women gets more viewers - and blogs - buzzing than a hot tryst, so we're treated to scenes like the one on last year's Real Housewives of New Jersey season finale, in which a wife furiously flipped over a table at a local restaurant. Then there's Jillian Michaels' vein-popping screaming sessions with charges on The Biggest Loser, a show so popular that Michaels has been awarded a second reality show all her own.
And now that entire websites and publications cover celebrities' every move, star-studded feuds abound. Angelina vs. Jen! Jon vs. Kate! Naomi Campbell vs. fill-in-the-blank service person! The more feuding we see, the more we accept and mimic it in our daily lives, says Potegal.
Luckily, we can protect ourselves from the anger influx. Eddie Reece, an Atlanta-based psychotherapist, differentiates between bad anger (marked by yelling, fuming, and flying fists) and good anger (which requires confidence and maturity, and takes the form of controlled communication). Of course, the answer doesn't lie in smothering your feelings, but in how you communicate them. Says Reece, "Anger can be the most intimate emotion two people share." By learning to express it thoughtfully and responsibly, you'll not only be calmer and healthier, you'll be happier, too. For more, check out seven expert-approved tension defusers, below.
FINDING PEACE IN AN ANGRY WORLD
- Turn off the TV. In a University of Maryland study, people who chose reading over watching TV were more likely to describe themselves as "very happy" than those who did the opposite, watching TV more than reading.
- Live in 3-D. Save e-mails and cell-phone calls for appointments and reservations, never for heart-to-hearts. And always keep Twitter-talk light and conflict-free.
- Breathe. Delay responding to an e-mail or text message that annoys you. Take five breaths; call when you have time to talk calmly. Better yet, take a night to sleep on it. Never, ever send a work e-mail in anger.
- Sleep. "Irritability is a symptom of insomnia," notes Nancy Molitor, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Northwestern University. The message: Snooze more and you'll be in better control of your emotions - and your tongue.
- Be grateful. Make a daily list of everything you're grateful for as a way to dispel anger, which Novaco says is the "absence of appreciation."
- Move. "The chemicals released during anger can feel like muscular tension that needs releasing," says Rich Pfeiffer, Ph.D., a Sedona, Arizona-based psychologist. Hit the gym to keep your limbs loose and your mind open.
- Take action. Anger strikes when we feel powerless. Whether you're outraged by disease in Africa or the latest eco-disaster, join a volunteer group to do something about it. Your mood will improve, and you may even have an impact on the problem.
AND IF YOU DO GET ANGRY ...
Women are conditioned not to express anger: We say we're "annoyed" or "depressed," says Molitor, who's seen a recent rise in female clients grappling with the emotion. If that's you, run through the following checklist:
- Assess the anger. Do you feel unappreciated, disrespected, or wronged? Ask yourself if the reaction is justified - is it possible that the guy who cut in line just didn't see you? If the answer is no, then ...
- Calmly express dissatisfaction. Start with how you feel. For example, to a chronically tardy friend, try "Your lateness makes me feel as if you don't respect me," not "You suck because you're always late."
- Show empathy. If a cashier is rude, try saying, "I'm sorry I'm so slow. You must be having a bad day." The goal is to address the problem without assigning blame.
- Listen. If you propose an idea and a colleague puts it down, approach her afterward. Say, "I noticed you had a strong reaction to my comment. That gave me a strong reaction. I want to do a good job. Can we discuss this?" Hear her out.
- Strive for compromise. By finding common ground, you'll feel virtuous, not bitter, while also sticking up for yourself. Opening the lines of communication makes everyone feel better about things.
- Exit laughing. If all else fails, try laughter - the more heated the situation, the likelier it is there's something ridiculous to laugh about. It's just a matter of finding it.
Originally published September 21, 2010
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