Anger, its effects on health and what to do about it
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Dr. Claude Brodeur, PhD

The Uses and Limits of Anger

This is a recap of an article by Carol Travis which appeared in the magazine Psychology Today. This such an important topic and her research so invaluable that I have taken the liberty of reporting it so that this article and her work might reach a wider audience through the Internet. The proper credits are given at the foot of the article.


What's anger all about anyway?
We are all normally born with the capacity to get angry and the ability to express that anger. The baby sure knows how to get our attention when upset. Crying and yelling does it. That's the way a baby lets us know its needs. For infants, getting angry is quite obviously their only way of communicating their needs. As grownups we sometimes act like a baby with this difference. For an adult anger may not always be a good way of communicating. Nor is it always considered a bad thing to do, except in most cases of physical or verbal abuse.

Then what's the problem with anger?
The problem with anger is twofold. What are you to do when feeling frustrated or angry? Howare you to show our frustration or anger without abusing your health or without losing your friends or alienating your colleagues. Showing that you are angry may sometimes be the only way you can get your message across to others. It may be the only way you can let people really understand that they have intruded upon your space, that you are feeling physically or emotionally abused or intimidated.

Is it emotionally healthy to be angry, no matter how you look at it?
How can you look at it? Leaving moral issues aside, consider current psychological theory. Some therapists believe that suppressed anger is the real cause of all sexual disorders, marital problems, psychosomatic illnesses, depression, suicide and all abnormal or deviant behaviors. Is it true, as some suggest, that behind every calm, serene person there lurks a furious part screaming to get out? Some therapists think so. I don't agree with them. Others treat anger as if it were a fixed amount of energy manifesting in the body in such a way that if you pinch it in here, it's likely to show up somewhere else. You may act it out in bad dreams, neuroses, hysterical paralysis, hostile jokes, stomach aches or headaches. This theory seems far-fetched. The fact is that no one knows for sure exactly what angry feelings really say about anyone. It's not clear.

What should we do about our angry feelings?
Should you pretend you're not angry? Should you let others know you're angry? Is physically or verbally venting your feelings healthy, as long as you do no physical harm to anyone? Is suppressing hostile feelings actually dangerous to your health? If you are helped or allowed to express your feelings, will you in some way benefit? Is there value in hitting, throwing or breaking something when feeling frustrated? Some say yes, some say no. Others say sometimes... under special circumstances.

Why not vent your anger?
Outbursts of anger may only raise the general noise level life without necessarily resolving the difficulties causing your angry feelings. Taking your frustrations out on others may only increase your level of frustration, not get rid of it. Screaming, throwing things, shouting recriminations will not always get rid of your frustration or make you feel better.

What happens when you are feeling frustrated or angry?
For one thing, your body chemistry normally changes, your blood pressure increases, the immune system is stressed. Body tension and stress levels are greatly heightened. Could severe stressful feelings of anger lead to some kind of personality disorder? It's doubtful that angry feelings alone could create a personality disorder, or do internal physiological damage, or make anyone physically ill. The real cause of any such difficulty is the way you handle stress, your ability to control the negative effects of stress. Angry feelings do not by themselves cause harmful stress for everyone. Some are not affected at all by such feelings, much to the frustration of others.

So what do people report about their angry feelings?
Some have mixed feelings about letting others know their feelings. They report feeling anxious about having shown their feelings of anger. In fact, they blame themselves for getting angry. Others simply shrug off the whole experience of getting angry without giving it another thought. According to the evidence, if you keep your feelings of anger to yourself, you have as good a chance of coping with physiological stress as you would if you vented your anger.

Are people consistent in how they handle their frustrations?
The answer is no. There are times when some people are likely to show their angry feelings. At other times they are more likely to keep their feelings of anger to themselves. It depends who is involved and what's at stake. There might even be a different effect on blood pressure, especially if the person has high blood pressure. Also a lot depends upon their reason for feeling angry, their age, race, gender and social class. For example, how might you feel if a police officer shouts at you for something that was not your fault or if a homeowner refuses to sell your dream house to you because of your race or religion or ethnic origin, or if your boss blows up at you for no apparent good reason. In which situation do you imagine you might be likely to show your anger? Does it matter to your stress level how you react in these situations? It all depends. It's very personal and subject to a quirky psychological fact called individual differences.

Does fear always control how we handle frustration and anger?
Probably. Should you allow yourself to be unfairly treated? Not if you can do anything about it. What could you do? Well, confronting a supervisor or a police officer or reporting them to their superiors may have serious anxiety-producing effects with certain risks of their own. Yet, expressing your angry feelings toward a prejudiced homeowner or rude police officer, who are forbidden by law to discriminate or behave unprofessionally, is another matter altogether. Righteous anger usually makes people feel good. In such circumstances, people who kept quiet about their anger, or who felt guilty about expressing their angry feelings, had the highest level of elevated blood pressure. But, again, not everyone. Only those who had certain macho beliefs about what it means to be manly.

Can you do anything positive about your angry feelings?
Much depends upon what you are willing to do. One suggestion is to use time out to reflect on the situation. Reflection as a technique has proved the most healthy way to react when faced with frustration or anger. Wait until both you and the angry person who offended you have calmed down. Then try to reason with the other person. This approach can be learned by anyone regardless of genetic makeup, race, gender, class or religion.

What about the frustration of dealing with teenagers and young adults?
The advice here is consider it a problem only when being manipulated in ways terribly destructive to family harmony and health. A Tough Love program may be appropriate in such a situation. Support groups are widespread and can be contacted through the yellow pages of your telephone directory or by calling your local Office of Community Services.

Do the experts advise us to ventilate our anger when dealing with frustration?
The answer is no. It's not supported by social and psychological research. Ventilating anger is often a self-destructive and self-defeating behavior. If expressing your anger will make you feel more angry and solidify your feelings of anger, making you into a hostile person, then it would be better to control your angry feelings. Keep quiet about momentary irritations. Use distraction. Think about something pleasant or do something pleasant. This is more likely to make you feel better faster than ventilating your anger.

Is this always the best advice?
Not at all. The problem is the inner struggle you may face when you try to decide what's best. What to do... to show your feelings of anger or hide the fact that you are angry? Constant and excessive feelings of rage are not good for you. It's best to constructively resolve this inner conflict. Several emotions are usually involved like guilt, shame or worry. As long as you have no such conflicting emotions, you are likely to feel okay no matter what you do. Constant anxiety about what to do or what you did isn't good for you. Neither is getting depressed about the situation a good solution. Physical illness can be caused by suppressed feelings of anger, by inner conflict, or by indecisiveness.

What about suffering the frustration of others in silence, feeling like a martyr?
This is not recommended. First , find the cause of the irritation or anger. Then, decide what's at stake. Finally, select a strategy to improve the situation. To get angry just to "get it off one's chest" seldom solves the problem that's causing the frustration or feelings of anger. Most often doing this creates harmful stress, which can cause illness, especially heart disease, disorders of the nervous or the digestive system, and a weakening of the immune system. Silent sulking is a deadly and unhealthy weapon. Bearing a grudge, nursing an indignity, or letting your anger out on someone in devious ways by forgetting to do something you promised to do, or holding back sexually, or sulking irritably around the house will be more harmful for your own health than it is likely to be for the other person's health.

What can you do instead of nursing a grudge?
If you try to figure out how to get back at someone, you are in our head talking to yourself. Now your feelings of anger will be simmering just below the surface. You are now the one who is going to put a strain on your heart, your nervous system, your stomach, your colon, or your immune system. Holding elaborate head conversations is not going to reduce levels of frustration. The potentially unhealthy effects of repressed anger will likely result.

Is there any constructive purpose to be given the ability to get angry?
Angry feelings seem to be a signal that you need to set limits or clarify boundaries. It is important to be clear to yourself and to others what is acceptable to you and what is not. Angry feelings send the message, "so far and no further" or "enough is enough." If your grievance is not openly dealt with, it will not matter if you show you are angry or hide the fact. Ventilating anger directly may be okay when it restores your sense of control, when it reduces the rush of adrenaline that accompanies a threatening or offending situation and when it gets you to feel that you are not helpless or powerless. Showing your anger might be okay in some instances if the other person needs to be convinced that you are really angry and if both parties can agree what to do about the situation. Then, you have established boundaries for the future about how you want to be treated and what is likely to cause you to become frustrated

Are there certain personality types more prone to frustration?
Of course there are. Common sense tells so. Research supports common sense. For example, Type A personalities (achievement-driven, highly competitive types) seem to be more susceptible to heart disease than other types. Anger is usually their problem. Type A's constantly feel pressured for time, swear impatiently at delays and tend to become aggressive or threaten violence at the slightest provocation. Other personality types are more easygoing. Not only are Type A's more at risk of heart disease, but men at risk of heart disease are also more likely to direct their anger outward, become angry more often, and often try to control the world. Type A's who do manage to keep their angry feelings to themselves and suppress their hostility also seem more likely to develop heart disease than those Type A's who show their anger and hostility.

What about other types, the Non-type A's?
If you are such a type, more easygoing, should you hide or show your anger. It depends. Can you do anything about the situation? Are you likely to get fired? Are you likely to lose a friend or break up your marriage? The answer to these questions should determine your strategy.

Do women deal with frustration differently from men?
Definitely. Most women seem to deal with anger by trying to calm the situation and act friendly, maybe by smiling or making gestures of accommodation. This approach can be and often is at the cost of their own rights. Men, on the other hand, tend to deal with their angry feelings with aggressive acts by lashing out at someone or by engaging in sports. These gender differences seem to be learned.

What if we have learned stereotyped ways of dealing with frustration?
We can unlearn them by practicing new ways of reacting? Some therapists think this is not only possible, but desirable. Assertiveness Training, for example, was specifically designed to teach more powerful and more constructive ways of coping with frustration than simply getting angry. A well run Assertiveness Training program can be very helpful in learning how to cope with your angry feelings while dealing positively with your frustrations, especially as a result of being badly treated. Remember that the real problem is not your feelings here, but how to get what you want without letting your anger get the best of you.

And in conclusion?
If you are the kind of person who typically is quick to get angry or easily frustrated, here are some healthier things you can do rather than suffering the harmful effects of angry outbursts, your own or others. You could learn yoga techniques to help relax your heart rate and slow your breathing, or Transcendental Meditation...any method of meditation for that matter, Relaxation Training, Tai Chi, and any practices of the sort can also be helpful in coping with frustration and developing feelings of self-confidence and self-worth. The general advice is to do everything you can to minimize the need to resolve your frustrations by resorting to outbursts of anger.

An appreciation and recommended reading:
I am indebted for most of this article to Carol Travis in her article "Anger Diffused," published in Psychology Today, the November 1982 issue. Also, I owe a special debt of thanks to my students who in my counseling sessions with them have taught me much about dealing with frustration and anger. A rich source of information about the emotions from a holistic perspective is Rays of the Dawn by Dr. Thurman Fleet. Copies are available at a nominal cost from the Concept-Therapy Institute, a nonprofit educational foundation, through their toll free telephone number 1-800-531-5626.

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Copyright © 1999, Dr. Claude Brodeur, PhD
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Page last modified:
March 12, 2000