"I'm So Mad I Could Just..."
Understanding What Sets Us Off
New research shows that feeling anger isn't the problem -- but how we express it might be. "Anger is a very useful signal that something is not right, that something needs to change," says Lawrence, Kansas, psychologist Harriet Lerner, PhD, author of The Dance of Anger. If we use anger as a tool to clarify what's wrong, our health can actually improve, shows a recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health. Among the more than 23,000 subjects, researchers found that those who expressed a moderate level of anger had a significantly reduced risk for heart attacks and stroke.
But that's the trick -- expressing the emotion rationally and calmly. Research suggests that many women do anything but. They either deny it, lash out immediately, or sit and seethe until they explode days -- or even weeks or months -- later. None of these responses is optimal.
Understanding what sets us off can help us get a handle on it, however. The same three triggers consistently anger women, says Sandra P. Thomas, PhD, professor of nursing at the College of Nursing at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who has studied the emotion. There's a feeling of powerlessness ("You don't care what I think!" or "My mother always criticizes me in public"), an exasperation with the irresponsibility of others ("He forgot to pick up the kids at school!"), or the sense that you're being mistreated or underappreciated ("My boss never thanks me for working late").
Men tend to get fired up in different ways. Experts say that women usually get angry at people in their lives but that men rage at more abstract things (the stock market, politics) and more mechanical objects (the car, the computer). According to a 2004 study of 1,300 adults by Raymond DiGiuseppe, PhD, psychology chair at St. John's University, in Jamaica, New York, males didn't experience anger any more frequently than women did. They were, however, more likely to be physically aggressive (slamming a door) or passive-aggressive (neglecting to take out the trash as promised). Interestingly, while women were less likely to speak out about their beef, they stayed angry longer and took more dramatic long-term action, such as vowing never to speak to the offender again.
With both sexes, there's hard wiring to consider. Once a person feels those first fiery flashes of anger, controlling it becomes a battle against biology. The body experiences a surge of the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol, accompanied by an increased heart rate and an activation of the part of the brain where anger originates (the limbic system), according to F. Gerard Moeller, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center, in Houston. "Some studies have shown a direct relationship between blood flow to the limbic system and how angry you're feeling," says Dr. Moeller. "But the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain located behind your lower forehead, is probably even more important, because it acts as the brakes for emotional reactions. It controls how you respond when you are feeling angry."
Not all prefrontal cortexes are created equal, which may be one reason why certain individuals blow up at the drop of a hat while others do better keeping their cool. According to an August 2004 study from Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, neuroscientists found that men and women who struggled to manage their anger had lower levels of blood flow to the prefrontal cortex when riled up, compared with those known to cope with their anger more effectively.