"I'm So Mad I Could Just..."
What Causes Our Anger Response?
Anger also may build upon itself, physiologically speaking, which perhaps explains why it may suddenly escalate from irritation to outright fury. "Once that anger-aggression-stress cycle gets going, it becomes really hard to wind down," says Laura J. Petracek, PhD, author of The Anger Workbook for Women and assistant professor of psychology at National University, in Sacramento, California. Its crippling mental effects are nothing to shrug off. "You literally undergo a kind of insanity, where you lose any notion that anything else matters. That loss of perspective makes us lose our decision-making abilities or even our sense of right and wrong." Remember the wife who ran over her cheating husband in a Texas parking lot?
Whether our genetic makeup may be partly to blame for our anger responses remains unclear. Our life experiences certainly play a role, says Harold Snieder, PhD, professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Georgia, in Augusta, who helped to conduct a 2005 study on twins. Researchers found that individuals who had endured the greatest number of stressful life experiences -- such as the death of a friend or family member, or even moving away at a sensitive age -- got angry the most. Researchers speculate that these people have developed a habit of responding to stressful events with anger, and this habit is hard to break.
Regardless of your history, staying calm is harder when you're exhausted or physically taxed. "You can overwhelm the prefrontal cortex with alcohol, drugs, or even sleep deprivation, and as a result, have more trouble controlling your anger," says Dr. Moeller. And of course stress always ups the ante. A 2004 study on rats in the Netherlands and Hungary supports this theory: Subjects that were stressed were more prone to aggressive behavior, and those that acted aggressively were more likely to exhibit stress.
Whatever the provocation, it's in our best interests to try to summon our rational side to modulate -- or harness -- our anger. One realization that may help is that anger isn't all bad; in fact, it can play a key motivational role in our lives. "Just like physical pain, which tells us to take our hand off a hot stove, anger can inspire a woman to make changes that are good for her," says Dr. Lerner. It could help a woman who has become a doormat to an exploitative friend to lay down some "respect me" rules. Or to realize that a rude receptionist, a faulty voice mail system, and an indifferent physician add up to one thing: time to switch doctors.