Contributed by Julia Messer, a licensed psychologist in private practice with Orenstein Solutions
Nathan logged off of his work computer and noticed that it was 6:45 p.m. He had worked later than planned, as usual, and quickly rushed out of the building to his car. Thoughts of the day ran through his mind … the meeting was not productive; someone was going to have to tell a co-worker that funds were no longer available to support his position; no one was getting a raise this year. Nathan glanced down as his cell phone rang, and he answered, “I know. I know. I’m on my way. I’ll grab dinner on my way to the game.
He had missed dinner with his family, again, and was now late to his son’s basketball game. He felt his neck and jaw muscles tensing, his blood pressure rising and his brow furrowing in a partial scowl. “There is never enough time in a day,” he thought with mounting frustration.
As Nathan pulled onto the interstate, the other drivers began their daily attempts to further aggravate him, driving slowly in the left lane, refusing to change lanes as he tried to merge and speeding up after he had successfully driven around them. He stepped on the gas, cursed loudly and barely avoided a collision. “Why does everyone make things harder for me?” he thought, gritting his teeth. “When is this ever going to end?” Nathan clenched his hand into a fist and hit the steering wheel with a dull thud.
Nathan’s experiences are not unusual. In fact, most of us have moments throughout our day that leave us feeling tense, overwhelmed and angry. Is it wrong to feel angry about other drivers getting in our way, children refusing to follow house rules or co-workers not following through on projects? The short answer is no.
Anger is a normal human emotion that arises when a person has a goal or need that is blocked and can’t be achieved or met. The feeling of anger can actually help individuals mobilize their resources to take action.
Significant social change has stemmed from brave leaders who felt anger, among other emotions, about being treated unjustly. The feeling of anger can also signal to us that something is wrong, and we need to take steps to protect ourselves from harm. These are the positive, useful sides of anger. Of course, there is another side. Just ask Nathan.
Consider what happens to our bodies when we feel anger: blood pressures rise, heart rates increase, muscles tense and breathing becomes more shallow and rapid. Studies in The Harvard Mental Health Newsletter and the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation report disturbing news: 1) Individuals who score high on rating scales of anger are nearly three times more likely to have a heart attack requiring bypass surgery within five years, and 2) men who have anger outbursts seem to be at a greater risk of having a stroke or dying.
In addition to physical health risks, anger can have serious negative consequences for psychological health. The way individuals respond when feeling angry often draws the line between normal and problematic anger. Around the 1960s and 1970s, a trend surfaced in the treatment of anger that involved “venting” and other cathartic methods, based in part on Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. Current research has demonstrated that expression of anger does not decrease or manage angry feelings but actually increases anger. Similarly, suppression of anger also has negative consequences, as it creates inner tension or anxiety, contempt and perhaps depression.
Whether one responds to anger by yelling at a loved one or coworker, driving aggressively or silently stewing inside, the impact ultimately can be seen in corroded, unhealthy and even destructive relationships with others. In some cases, dangerous driving and physical aggression can lead to serious harm, legal problems or death, and a lack of healthy, supportive relationships in one’s life can lead to negative psychological and physical consequences that are far-reaching and devastating.
So what about Nathan? His feelings of anger are normal, but his actions are not moving him toward his goal, and now his hand hurts, his blood pressure is still high and he is no closer to being at the basketball game.
The good news is that anger management groups, individual therapy and couples’ therapy are available resources that can help individuals learn how to decrease physiological arousal and change emotional responses and self-talk. For example, Nathan can learn to notice signs of tension early and consciously relax neck and jaw muscles. He can notice anger-provoking thoughts such as, “Why does everyone make things harder for me?” and modify them to, “This traffic is frustrating, but I can’t change it. I need to think about how much I’m going to enjoy watching my son’s game tonight.”
Anger management skills also involve learning how to respond thoughtfully rather than react impulsively and include developing empathy skills, forgiving others, adjusting expectations and taking effective timeouts when unable to think clearly.
Dealing with anger is an issue each of us faces every day. Managing anger is not about never feeling angry. It is about finding positive, effective ways to communicate and act so that you feel better and develop satisfying, healthy relationships.
Dr. Julia Messer is a licensed psychologist in private practice with Orenstein Solutions in Cary, where she provides comprehensive anger management programs. Learn more at www.orensteinsolutions.com or call (919) 428-2766, ext. 2 for a consultation