At one time or another, everyone feels anger bubbling up. There's nothing wrong with that. Anger is common. It's a normal response when you sense a threat or a social or professional slight.
So, when the new guy at work gets promoted and you don't, or when your spouse “pushes your buttons," it’s OK to feel hot under the collar.
Some people have trouble turning it off or dealing with it the right way, though. Chronic, ongoing anger can tear down your relationships, job, social life, reputation -- even your health.
Low to moderate anger can even work for good, prompting you to right wrongs and make improvements.
But it also kicks your body's natural defenses into overdrive. When you sense a threat, your nervous system releases powerful chemicals that prepare you to fight, run, and stay alive. Your heart rate and breathing quicken. Your blood pressure rises, muscles tense, and you perspire.
The problem is, chronically angry people spend too much time in this hyped-up state. Over time, that puts too much wear and tear on your body, making you more likely to get heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and other problems.
The rapid anger response also amps up your brain. On one hand, it helps you quickly know a potential threat. On the other, it can push you to make rash decisions in the heat of the moment. It's no surprise anger is linked to accidents and risky activities like smoking, gambling, drinking, and overeating. Anger also plays a role in depression. Also, studies suggest that holding it inside may be just as unhealthy as blowing up.
At the least, unchecked anger can hold off the people you need the most. Worse, it can turn into aggression or violence.
“Nobody ever gets into trouble for feeling angry,” Abrams stresses. “But people sometimes get into trouble for what they do when they feel angry.”
Warning Signs of an Anger Issue
How can you spot an anger problem?
“When it occurs too frequently, when the intensity is too strong, or when it endures too long,” says Howard Kassinove, PhD, director of Hofstra University's Institute for the Study and Treatment of Anger and Aggression. He also co-wrote “Anger Management for Everyone: Seven Proven Ways to Control Anger and Live a Happier Life.”
Kassinove sees degrees of anger: annoyance, anger, and rage. Occasionally feeling annoyed or even angry is nothing to worry about.
“Most people report that they get angry once or twice a week,” Kassinove says, “but people who rate high for the anger trait become angry about once a day. Holding on to anger for too long is another sign of trouble. We see patients who are still angry at people who died years ago.”
Looking closely at yourself can help. “People may ask themselves, 'Am I alone? Have I lost jobs, lost friends, lost family because of my anger?'” Abrams says.
In most cases, though, people are usually blind to their own issues, he says. Denial is common, too. Usually, it’s someone else who persuades them to seek help.
“Many people will say things like: 'There is nothing wrong with me. Somebody else or something else is causing me to be angry.'”
Kassinove agrees. “The first step is understanding that anger is caused by how you interpret an event. No one can force you to be angry," he says. "Once you recognize that, you are in charge of your own anger.”
Tips to Tame Anger
Kassinove suggests these tips to adjust your thinking and get off to a good start:
- Instead of calling a situation “awful or terrible,” tell yourself, “This is unpleasant.”
- Avoid upsetting extremes like, “I can't take it.” Instead, try the more realistic, “I really don't like it.”
- Stay away from thinking someone “should” or “ought to” act differently. “I wish she would act differently” is a better choice.
- Try not to use exaggerations like “always” or “never” to describe how often something upsetting happens. And judge the behavior -- not the person. (“That driver is a jerk.”)
Other tips to handle anger:
- When you feel rage coming on, slow down your breathing and relax your muscles. That can stop your body's “fight or flight” reaction that makes anger worse, Abrams says.
- Imagine a beach or other peaceful scene. Breathe in and out with the tide, picturing your stress washing away. The more you practice, the better and faster these relaxation techniques will work in an unexpected situation.
- Quiet yourself with soft music. Instrumental and nature sounds without words seem to work best.
- Know what makes you mad, and plan your reaction. “The earlier you intervene in the anger process, the better. The key is to calm yourself down before you explode,” Abrams says.
- Finally, accept that you can't completely prevent it. “Never feeling angry is not the goal,” Abrams says. “Learning skills to control your anger is.”
Don't wait to get help from an anger management specialist or program. Ask staff at a hospital, university, or professional organization for a referral.