"I'm So Mad I Could Just..."
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"I'm So Mad I Could Just..."

Anger done right can be a motivating, confidence-boosting force. But many of us do it badly -- blowing up or bottling up. Here, how to take the reins on your rage.

Out-of-Control Anger and Your Health

Laura Imperia, a 44-year-old registered nurse from Jacksonville, Oregon, isn't proud of her temper. "I don't get angry often, but when I do, it gets ugly," she admits. "A few years ago, I had just moved into a new house and I kept misplacing everything -- my keys, my cell phone, my address book. I felt so frustrated. I called a friend at home to ask her for help with something, but I got her machine."

Failing to get through to her pal, by any measure a minor setback, pushed Imperia over the edge. "I wasn't so much mad at her as just totally fed up with my own disorganization," she says. "I threw my phone across the room, screaming obscenities. But I hadn't actually turned off my new phone, so my entire tirade was all recorded on my friend's answering machine. When she came home and heard the message, she called me and timidly asked, 'Laura, are you okay?' I answered, 'Oh, you just got an example of one of my tantrums.' I had nothing left to do but say I was sorry and laugh at myself."

A rampage like this can certainly leave us feeling sheepish once we're no longer seeing red. But is there more serious, longer-lasting damage? Every other day it seems that we are faced with a new cautionary headline: Anger Causes Headaches, Anger Shown to Raise Blood Pressure, Anger May Lead to Cardiac Arrest, Depression, Stroke, Cancer, Asthma Attacks.... Heck, anger has even been linked to gum disease. In the family of human emotions, good old-fashioned fury is looked upon as an ugly stepsister with a nasty, catching case of the croup.

But it's a lot more complicated than that.

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.

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.

When Anger Equals Action

Such realizations may not come overnight, which is why it's important to heed a percolating anger that just isn't going away. "When I learned my husband was cheating on me I spent about a week in disbelief," says Jan Leibole, a 54-year-old real-estate agent and mother of two from Temecula, California. "As it started to sink in, I got really angry, and it was that anger that made me finally realize, You don't have to stand for this. It got me out the door and got me to start a new life for myself. It took me a full two years to get over the cheating, but now my life is so much better -- I have a career, I have a fantastic new marriage, and I am much, much happier. I honestly feel that I have anger to thank for what I have now."

Anger can do more than help a person out of a bad situation; it may create a renewed sense of optimism. "Fear is paralyzing, but anger is an active emotion that gets you going," says Nada Stotland, MD, a Chicago psychiatrist and vice president of the American Psychiatric Association. "If you're afraid, you feel like there's nothing you can do, but if you get angry and utilize it the right way, you're mobilized." According to a Carnegie Mellon University study reported in the May 2003 issue of Psychological Science, in which nearly 1,000 adults were interviewed after 9/11, researchers discovered that those who felt angry instead of fearful showed more optimism than pessimism.

Even so, "you're never at your best in the moment you're feeling anger," says Dr. Thomas. "It doesn't ever work to your advantage to have a tirade." Once in control, we can more capably address a situation, and are less likely to say or do something we'll later regret. So the sweet spot for action is the immediate aftermath, which, depending on the person, is anywhere from five minutes to a few hours later, not the following week. And there is one best way to express anger during this time period: with direct, honest communication in private. That includes calm statements of exactly what is upsetting and why, along with specifics on what you'd like changed (stick to your feelings, not another person's faults). "Letting people know that you are angry but in control is a very appropriate and mature thing to do," says Dr. Stotland. "If you calmly explain your side of things -- giving reasons 1, 2, and 3 for your behavior and emotions -- that is a very powerful response, and it does not usually escalate any anger the other person may have." Write your thoughts down first, in a document meant for your eyes only, says Dr. Stotland.

Harness, Control, and Use Your Anger

For small matters, it may be best to bite the bullet and just wait for tomorrow, because according to an August 2004 study from the University of Florida, in Gainesville, whatever has put you in a bad mood at work today will likely be gone the next morning. "We know that moods are fairly fleeting, so that even when we are affected by negative experiences, our mind has the ability to digest them and reset by the next day," says Timothy Judge, PhD, who led the study and is the Matherly-McKethan Eminent Scholar in Management at the university.

Numerous studies have suggested that anger management is most difficult in the adolescent years -- teenage brains don't process fury well -- and easiest for those over 60. Of course, this is only generally true. Even 80-year-olds could and should get riled up over an affront by a backstabbing friend or a conniving ex-spouse.

Or as Dr. Thomas says, "It's never too late to start expressing your anger, and to learn that good things can come from it."

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, November 2005.