“I just wanna hit something! I wanna hit it hard!”
When Sally Field tearfully (and angrily) uttered this knockout line from the camp classic Steel Magnolias it cut through the scene’s intense grief like butter, especially when Olympia Dukakis then hilariously offered up Shirley MacLaine as a human punching bag.
What are you angry about these days? Like Fields’ character, is it the heartbreaking loss of a loved one? Maybe it’s the never-ending war in Iraq, the thought of another Republican in the White Housel, or a homophobic neighbor or nitpicky boss? Studies historically show that built up anger and resentment are linked to a host of health problems, but in today’s turbulent world how can one not be pissed off, right?
“Negative feelings, such as anger, are normal and often appropriate and healthy in some circumstances,” says Greg Cason, a psychologist in Los Angeles. “Anger is one of the basic emotions of survival, and gives us the motivation and energy to defend ourselves from physical or emotional attacks.”
Cason says that anger is usually expressed via a trio of outlets; a verbal explosion a la Sally Field, in socially ostracizing or humiliating others (think Mean Girls), or in outright physical attack (think most Jerry Springer guests). Anger in small or infrequent doses is a necessary and helpful emotion, but larger or frequent outbursts are not only destructive to relationships and the psyches of other people, but are ironically especially hurtful to the person who’s actually feeling it.
“Expressing anger is the very thing that increases health and emotional problems and increases experience and intensity of anger and consequences in the environment,” says Cason. “The key is not to let out anger, but to decrease the source of anger.”
Released anger is akin to the steam bursting from a boiling pot; the pressure on the lid may temporarily decrease, but the heat in the kitchen increases. And, whether you take the lid off permanently or put it back on, the pot continues to boil.
In other words, simply turning down the flame (causes for anger) is the healthiest option for releasing anger. Easier said than done, of course, because people often interpret that as submitting to the source of that anger, says Cason. “Often, an angry person feels they only have two choices—attack or be attacked.”
Instead, the key to managing anger in healthy ways is within yourself, or more specifically, your perceptions of the world around you. Here are some options Cason suggests for managing (and releasing) your anger:
Take Care of You: Decreasing alcohol and other drug intake is one way to immediately take better care of you. Controlling your blood pressure through relaxation techniques and, if your blood pressure is too high, medication, is another. Get your hormone levels checked and controlled (and be sure you’re medically supervised if you are using hormones for other than medical reasons). Also, getting adequate sleep and eating well can also help diffuse negative emotions.
Examine your Beliefs: Do you have rigid and unrealistically high expectations of others? Look for words such as “should, must, and ought” in your head when you find yourself getting angry at someone. “Generally when you experience anger after a perceived transgression by another person, you may notice that you are thinking someone along the lines of ‘he should not do that’ or ‘he ought to do this,’” says Cason. “If you discover something like this, then ask yourself why someone ‘should’ follow your rules. Then ask yourself to consider whether instead it would be preferable if the other person did as you would like, but it is O.K. if they do not. This process is difficult to do in the beginning but, if mastered, can help you catch anger in its beginning stages and prevent a blow-up.”
Be assertive instead of angry: Be assertive—not aggressive! In assertiveness there are three basic components that can help you keep your cool but still get your point across. Assertiveness can be a positive method to help you get what you want, whereas anger attempts to punish the offending person or persons.
1. Say what you want. For example, saying “Excuse me, that comment is very offensive to me, I’d appreciate if you wouldn’t say that anymore…” makes it clear how you feel and what you expect from the person who’s offended you.
2. Say why you want it (your feelings could be communicated at this point, but be careful about demonstrating it). If someone next to you is too loud at the movies, telling them “I can’t hear the movie over your conversation” explains your point of view.
3. Being respectful of other person and their desires. Instead of name-calling, approach the person who offended you in a very neutral way, without making it personal, or offer a compliment in addition to your request. “You’re not trying to punish the other person, you’re trying to effectively communicate what you want,” says Cason. -- Mitch Rustad