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Why Am I So Angry?

Anger can be a force for good, but chronic, intense anger is neither helpful nor healthy. Here's how to get a grip.
By David Freeman
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

America is in the midst of an anger epidemic. From traffic jams to computer glitches to friends who don’t show up when they say they will, there’s never been a shortage of things to get mad about. And now, fallout from the economic crisis -- lost jobs, shrunken nest eggs, etc. -- seems to be amplifying our anger. 

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In a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, 53% of Americans said they were angry about the economy. In another poll, conducted recently by the American Psychological Association, 60% of Americans reported feeling angry or irritable -- up from 50% in 2007 -- with eight out of 10 calling the economy a major cause of stress.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with anger. Psychologists say it’s normal to feel angry when your well-being is threatened -- and that goes for your financial as well as emotional and physical well-being.  Although people differ in the way they express anger -- men may turn aggressive, women sad, and adolescents impulsive -- just about everyone gets angry from time to time, says David L. Kupfer, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Falls Church, Va. “I’ll bet the Dalai Lama gets angry if his plane is delayed,” he says.

Anger can be a force for good, as when it encourages people to act against injustice. It can be a life guide of sorts, helping steer you away from the situations and people you find noxious. And as we all know from high school biology, anger is a key element of the lifesaving “fight or flight” response, in which we act quickly to repel attackers or flee them.

But chronic, intense anger is neither helpful nor healthy. It can cause problems in your personal relationships and at work; research has linked high levels of anger to heart attack, stroke, and premature death. “There is no question that anger that is chronic or poorly managed is bad for your health,” says Redford B. Williams, MD, director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.

How do you avoid being a victim of your own wrath? A generation ago, psychologists often advocated immediate, unfettered expressions of anger. “Letting it all hang out” was considered a good way to dissipate rage. But recent evidence suggests the contrary: Rather than easing angry feelings, forcefully expressing them seems to intensify them. “Now we know the only thing cathartic expressions of anger does is make you better at being angry,” Kupfer says.

There’s now widespread agreement among anger experts that it’s better to evaluate angry feelings before acting on or even accepting them. Williams is a leading proponent of this view; he recommends asking yourself four specific questions whenever you feel angry:

  1. Is the situation or event that triggered my anger important? That is, is the thing that triggered my rage something that threatens my well-being?
  2. Given the situation or event, is my anger appropriate? Faced with the same circumstances, would the average person get angry?
  3. Is the situation modifiable? Is there something I can do to change it for the better?
  4. Is it worth it to try to modify the situation? That is, is it worth my time and effort?

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