As we enter the 2012 election year, we’re only beginning to observe the vitriol of a presidential campaign. With months of debate ahead, politics are among the topics that people become passionate—and angry—about. Fortunately, we can learn to manage our anger before it becomes destructive to ourselves or others.
“Anger leads to our ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction, when the hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol are released in our bodies. These hormones can be helpful in an emergency situation because they provide a quick burst of energy, increase one’s heart rate and blood pressure, blood flow to muscles and the heart, and dilate the pupils, trachea and bronchioles,” explains Dr. Cynthia Poelker, a family physician with Westglen Family Physicians and on staff at St. Luke’s Hospital.
When these physical responses continue for prolonged periods, they can lead to a variety of medical problems. Physicians warn that anger and similar emotions, such as chronic anxiety or depression, increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, insomnia, abdominal pain and recurrent headache. They also depress the immune system, leaving us more vulnerable to infection.
Beyond the potential physical effects of ongoing anger, it can take a serious toll on relationships. “Where people get into trouble is how they choose to express their anger,” says Dr. Pearl Serota, a psychiatrist who practices in Creve Coeur. “Anger becomes problematic when it is used as a tool to control others, or when it is used to hurt others. Problematic ways of expressing anger include yelling and screaming, which not uncommonly occurs in families with high expressed emotion.”
When anger is used to bully or belittle another person or when it is expressed with sarcasm or contempt, it is damaging to relationships. And anger that devolves into physical aggression toward self or others is considered pathologic and requires professional intervention.
For many people, particularly teenagers, anger is the expression of a more deep-seated emotion, such as fear, frustration or disappointment. Uncovering the true cause of angry outbursts can help in defusing the behavior, says Dr. James Feinberg, a St. Louis-based child clinical psychologist. “When a teenage boy is emotionally erupting, for example, it’s impossible to have a civil and rational discussion with him at that moment,” he notes. Once the child has calmed down, Feinberg advises that parents ask open-ended questions to help determine the true cause of the outburst. Parents should not be judgmental or disapproving during such discussions. Rather, they should express their love and concern by asking the child to help them understand what caused the upset.
Dr. Karen Jacobi, a psychologist with Saint John’s Family Therapy, helps clients learn calming techniques, such as breathing and relaxation exercises. She also suggests that individuals use ‘I statements’ to express their emotions.
Serota describes the technique: “Use statements that start with ‘I’ instead of ‘you’ to avoid blame. It’s OK to complain but not to criticize others. Avoid overgeneralizing (using words such as ‘always’ and ‘never’) or attacking a person’s character. If a statement begins with ‘you,’ that automatically puts the other person on the defensive. It works best if one expresses one’s complaint with a statement that begins with ‘I feel.’ ”
Experts agree that frequent or abusive outbursts require professional evaluation and intervention. The American Psychological Association provides additional advice online at apa.org/topics/anger.