Life provides men with an endless supply of things to get angry about. There’s the sullen waitress who refuses to look in your direction while you wave desperately for the check. There’s the oaf who drifts across the road without ever using his blinker. There’s the dropped call, the tepid shower, the gum on the bottom of the shoe.
While it’s perfectly natural to get angry about any of these things, anger comes to some men more naturally than others. For the hot-tempered, the pettiest annoyance results in out-of-control anger. And some guys, despite the fact anger is listed among the deadly sins, genuinely like having a hot temper. It can be a source of pride and a badge of masculinity. Even if you’re not busting heads every weekend at a roadhouse, you might enjoy indulging your angry side. You might feel that anger helps you succeed and inspires respect.
But there’s a downside to the manful, short-fused Type A personality. “In researching people with this disposition, we found that anger and hostility may actually be lethal,” says Charles D. Spielberger, PhD, a distinguished research professor of psychology at the University of South Florida who’s been studying anger for 25 years. And he means lethal to the person who gets angry, not the one on the receiving end of the anger. The evidence that anger can detract from your health is mounting all the time. And of course, uncontrolled anger in men can leave your marriage and your career — not to mention your crockery — in pieces.
So what is this emotion that we all share but rarely think about? How do we know if our anger is out of control — and what is it doing to us?
Is anger just an emotion? While we think of it that way, it’s really much more. “Anger is both psychological and physiological,” Spielberger tells WebMD. When you lose control of your anger during a traffic jam or at your son’s soccer game, your nervous system triggers a number of biological reactions:
- Levels of hormones, like cortisol, increase.
- Your breathing gets faster.
- Your pulse gets faster.
- Your blood pressure rises.
- As you heat up, you begin to sweat.
- Your pupils dilate.
- You may notice sudden headaches.
Basically, your body is gearing up for intense physical activity. This is the “fight” part of the “fight or flight” response. If we’re exposed to something stressful, our bodies get ready to do battle or run away.
Spielberger says that anger is common because it has an evolutionary advantage. “Anger isn’t just a human emotion,” he says. “Fear and rage are common to animals too. They developed over eons to help creatures fight and survive.”
The problem is that, nowadays, your body’s full-blooded physical response to anger isn’t always so useful. It might have come in handy when our ancestors were trying to club a cave bear to death. But it really doesn’t help much when you’re standing in a line at the DMV.
In fact, uncontrolled anger is worse than useless: It’s bad for you. Several studies have found a link between anger and disease. For instance, a large study of almost 13,000 people found that those who had high levels of anger — but normal blood pressure — were more likely to develop coronary artery disease or have a heart attack. The angriest were three times as likely to have a heart attack as the least angry.
So how does anger turn into disease? Your body’s physical reaction to anger is intended for the short-term — it gives you the immediate boost you need to survive. But if this explosion of hormones is triggered too often, you can suffer long-term effects. Anger’s stress hormones may contribute to arteriosclerosis, the build-up of plaques in the arteries that can cause heart attacks and strokes. These hormones may also increase levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), which causes inflammation and may also contribute to cardiovascular risk. One 2004 study in Psychosomatic Medicine found that people prone to anger had levels of CRP twice or three times as high as others. Anger can even cause electrical disturbances in the heart rhythm.
Anger has also been linked with depression. People who report being frequently angry are less likely to take care of themselves. They’re more likely to smoke, drink to excess, and eat badly, and they’re less likely to exercise. While it’s hard to say that in these cases anger is the cause, it’s certainly linked with a lot of unhealthy behaviors. Anger can also be an expression of feelings of helplessness or depression.
Controlling your anger
But Spielberger doesn’t want anger to be demonized. It’s not evil. “Anger is a natural, human emotion,” Spielberger says. “There’s nothing abnormal about it.”
He points out that when it’s correctly channeled, anger can be constructive. It can drive people to speak out and solve problems. It’s the impulse behind much great literature and music. The white hot anger of the righteous has often been a powerful, positive force in our world. But the problem is that for every man who uses his anger constructively, there are a dozen brawling knuckleheads who waste their lives making appearances in the local paper’s police blotter.
Since anger is natural, what are we supposed to do with it?
Spielberger says that there are two wrong things to do with it. One is to think that it’s healthy and normal to have uncontrolled anger released in an explosive rage. Some guys just assume that screaming at people, throwing things, and punching walls is cathartic and will make them feel better. In fact, getting into a rage can just ramp up your reaction — making you even less in control of your anger.
Here’s the other wrong thing: to push down the bile and keep smiling. Some men think that any expression of anger is unhealthy or antisocial and should be suppressed.
Studies show that both approaches — noisily expressing your anger or soundlessly burying it — are equally harmful and may pose the same health risks, Spielberger says. But if neither corking up your anger nor blowing your stack is a healthy option, what’s an angry man to do?
There is another option. Let anger out, but control it, Spielberger says. The first step is to become self-aware. Don’t let yourself fly into a rage. Instead, be conscious of your anger. It’s the only way to figure out exactly what is making you angry.
Once you can identify the real problem, you can try to solve it rationally instead of getting pointlessly furious. If you’re angry with someone, talk about it in an assertive — but not aggressive — way. If a certain situation predictably sparks uncontrolled anger, learn how to prepare for it. Better yet, learn how to avoid the situation altogether in the future, if possible. The advantage to channeling your anger in this way is that you get a concrete benefit: You’re actually trying to deal with the problem rather than just yelling about it, and you’re more likely to get the result you desire.
Chill out, man: Tips for cooling down
Since feeling angry is in part a physical process, you won’t be able to just talk yourself out of it logically. Instead, you need to calm yourself down physically. With these techniques, you can lower your heart rate and blood pressure as well as control your anger.
- Take a deep breath. Breathe in and out deeply from your diaphragm, which is under your chest bone. After a minute or so, you should feel some tension ebb away. The advantage to breathing exercises is that you can do them anywhere, says Spielberger. Once you’re good at them, you can even do them in the middle of a marital spat or a staff meeting.
- Take a break. If you feel your anger getting out of control, get a change of scenery. If possible, leave the room or go for a walk.
- Focus on something else. Count to 10. Try imagining yourself in a calm place. Or repeat a soothing word to yourself.
- Get some exercise. Building physical activity into your schedule can be a great stress reliever.
More serious problems with anger need to be treated. Yeah, the phrase “anger management” can sound pretty feeble and goofy. It’s often seen (and used) as a punishment, a humiliation to be endured — like doing community service picking up litter on the freeway — rather than anything you’d ever want to seek out on your own.
But if you think uncontrolled anger is interfering with your life, get help before it’s court mandated. Learn how to turn your rage into something useful. Because taming your uncontrolled anger won’t only benefit the people around you — it will make your life better and healthier too.
Like any other human emotion, it’s how you use — not abuse — anger that matters.