The Good News: Anger Can Save Your Life
Legend has it that when noted wilderness–survival expert Tom Brown slipped through thin ice and into a frigid lake miles from help, he immediately employed one of his most potent survival tools—anger! His anger at himself for having fallen into the lake in the first place, the story goes, gave him the boost of adrenaline he needed to pull himself out of the lake and run twelve miles in subfreezing temperatures to the nearest house. Brown credits anger as the fuel that saved his life.
“Anger is an inborn, natural emotion that can indeed save your life,” agrees Dr. Kenneth Mills, a psychologist in Chapel Hill, NC, and an expert on aggressive behavior. “If you have a bump to get over…sometimes you need to get angry to overcome it.”
Anger that manifests as assertiveness can be a positive coping skill, says, Mills, and one that is difficult for many people to pick up and master.
“Anger appropriately expressed in the moment is good because it lets people know how we feel and that we are upset and want a change,” according to David Herz, president and founder of Vive! Inc., a program that works with troubled teens and their families. Even more importantly, says Herz, “anger is good in that it can tell us that we are avoiding a deeper feeling or we are not being adequately expressive toward someone else.”
Current research indicates that the assertive expression of moderate anger can help people solve problems, communicate more effectively, engage in activism, succeed in the workplace and possibly even improve their physical health.
The Bad News: Anger Can Kill You
But the news about anger isn’t all good.
“Despite the positive aspects of anger,” says Herz, “anger held inside or improperly expressed can actually eat you away physically. Long-term anger can kill.”
“Anger itself is not toxic,” says Mills, “but it is cheap. It’s an easy fuel to access, so it tends to get overused by some—especially adolescents. When overused, anger becomes toxic.”
This toxicity may manifest as hypertension, high blood pressure, or depression, according to the American Psychological Association. Current research indicates that chronic anger increases blood cortisol levels and may exhaust adrenal stores, both of which can cause serious, even deadly, health problems.
In addition to making anger toxic, the overuse of anger tends to snowball like an addiction. In contrast to the traditional “pressure cooker” theory of anger, which held that unexpressed anger builds up in the mind until it boils over or explodes, many psychologists now agree that the habitual expression of anger actually increases, rather than relieves, anger. “If you use anger to solve a lot of problems,” Mills says, “the anger in the person and the family system will grow. Anger perpetuates itself. “
Mills, who has applied his expertise in aggressive behavior to driver-training programs for police officers, truckers, teenagers and others (www.disciplined-attention.com), cites an unexpected consequence of poorly managed anger. “When we get behind the wheel, we drive our personality,” he says. “If you’re an angry person, you will tend to drive aggressively, angrily. New studies are showing that aggressive driving is killing or hospitalizing more people than drunk driving!”
Keeping the News Good
So how do you ensure that your anger is a positive rather than a self-destructive tool? It’s not easy, Mills warns, especially for people well down the path of anger over-use. “Anger management is an easy topic to give advice on, but it’s difficult to put into practice.”
Nonetheless, if anger occasionally gets the best of you, there are ways to improve your anger-management skills. “If your anger reaches a point that requires management,” suggests Herz, “I recommend exercise. I love to take the kids I work with out to the basketball court; it’s a great way to take a time out and deescalate.” Herz also recommends meditation, deep breathing exercises and removing yourself from situations that trigger anger. “When my twins were two I would often give myself timeouts or I would lose my temper. I would take a walk or go into my bedroom, close the door and hit pillows. That helped!”
Herz recommends that once the immediate anger has been managed or has passed, it’s important to explore the deeper reasons for the anger—is it really sadness, anger at ourselves for not communicating well with someone, or even fear? Mills suggests that the first question to ask when you become angry is, “what am I really afraid of or sad about?” Once the real problem behind the anger has been identified, it’s time to address that core problem calmly but directly.
Those for whom the overuse of anger has damaged relationships, led to self-harm or violence, or become an intractable issue—along the lines of an addiction, the assistance of a trained psychotherapist may be a critical tool for lasting change.
By WILL LAUGHLIN
“Anger Management Institute of Texas is a certified Anderson & Anderson provider.”
Gregory A. Kyles, M.A., LPC, CEAP, CAMF
Director, Anger Management Institute of Texas
Diplomate, President of Texas Chapter
American Association of Anger Management Providers