As is the case with all sciences, psychology has been guilty of its share of mistakes. One interesting example of this concerns the emotion of anger. For many years, the common wisdom was that people should express their anger, that it was unhealthy to suppress it. Freud, one of the first proponents of this view, argued that depression is anger turned inward, so clearly, it would be better to express one's anger outward to avoid the negative consequences of repressing it. This belief was strengthened in the 1950s when psychoanalyst Franz Alexander wrote that pent-up anger would intensify, resulting in a chronic emotional state that caused hypertension. Alexander's theory received some support in the 1960s when a group of researchers brought people into the laboratory and deliberately made them angry, which caused their blood pressure to increase. Half of these research participants were subsequently allowed to retaliate against the person who made them angry, and for these people, there was a decrease in their blood pressure. So, it seemed clear: expressing anger could lower one's blood pressure and possibly preclude the risk of coronary heart disease.
Now, nearly 40 years later, researchers have a very different view of anger, and it appears as if there is very little that is good about it. As is always the case, the situation is extremely complex and the interplay of a number of variables must be considered, but it does appear that anger poses serious health and social risks. Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of the health risks was presented by a group of researchers from the University of North Carolina who gave a group of medical students a test measuring their hostility. Twenty-five years later, physicians who had been high in hostility as students were significantly more likely not only to have suffered coronary disease but also to have died!
The social risks of anger have been well publicized over the past several years. Who has not heard of ugly and tragic incidents stemming from road rage? Both spouse and child abuse are almost always preceded by the perpetrator experiencing anger. Over the past half century, we psychologists have gone from teaching people how to express their anger to leading anger management seminars. Anger is something that is best controlled.
UCLA psychologist Judith Siegel developed the Multidimensional Anger Inventory to reflect the complexity of the emotion of anger. After reviewing the scientific literature dealing with the relationship between anger and coronary heart disease, she noted that there are a number of dimensions associated with this dangerous emotion. As the scales on her test suggest, some people may become angry often, but a relatively narrow range of situations elicit their anger. Other people may have a generally hostile outlook on the world, even though they may not experience a great deal of emotional intensity when they feel angry. Siegel's goal was to develop a test that would help researchers better understand exactly what components of anger contribute to coronary heart disease.
While we still have much to learn about the precise nature of anger, it is clear that if you received high scores on this test then you would benefit from modifying your anger level. It is never easy to change lifelong patterns, but the evidence is clear that anger management programs work. It is true that some of us are predisposed by our biological makeup to respond more strongly than others, but the experience of anger is strongly influenced by learning. If we observed our parents becoming angry frequently, we learned that anger is an expected reaction in such situations. And remember, patterns that are learned can be unlearned.
Perhaps the most important step in modifying your anger is to recognize that it is under your control. Too many angry people blame the target of their emotions. The abusive husband blames his wife for provoking him. The woman who experiences road rage blames stupid and incompetent drivers. If you want to change, you have to accept responsibility for your reactions. You cannot blame others for the emotions you experience. You are in charge, and it is up to you to do something about your anger.
One important step in modifying your anger is to learn a more appropriate, healthier response to situations that make you angry. Most anger management programs use relaxation training to help people with this step. A good source of additional information about the benefits of relaxation and detailed instructions to help you learn this response is Harvard psychiatrist Herbert Benson's book, The Relaxation Response. Even if you do not spend the time to thoroughly master these techniques, you can accomplish a great deal with very simple breathing exercises. Suppose you are stuck in traffic and know you will be late to an important meeting. Rather than feel angry at all the "idiots" who are making life difficult for you, simply lean back in your seat, take several slow, deep breaths, and repeat the word relax to yourself. This will not work miracles the first time you try it, but if you consistently practice relaxing in situations that typically make you angry, you will be surprised by the change in yourself over a few weeks' time.
Along with learning to relax, you must change your thoughts. I do not have much of a problem with anger but there is one situation that I have had to make a conscious effort to work on— the express line in the grocery store. I would find myself becoming increasingly angry when the people in front of me did not do everything they could to make the line move quickly. Especially infuriating was the person who would wait until the checker announced the total before digging through her purse to find her pocketbook. Then, this especially annoying person would dig through her change pocket to preserve as many of her precious dollar bills as possible (see, I'm getting worked up just writing about it). I decided I had to change when I realized I would still be angry by the time I got home from the store. So I would take the deep breaths and then tell myself that at most, it was adding a minute to my delay and that the woman was not intentionally doing this to make my life miserable. And rather than stare at her in a futile attempt to speed her up, I would amuse myself by reading the headlines of the tabloid newspapers that are always adjacent to the checkout line.
It has been several years since I vowed to work on this, and there are still times when I am in a hurry and I have to remind myself to practice what I preach. It is almost impossible to completely change our reactions, but it is also true that I almost never walk out of the store feeling angry at the people who were ahead of me in line. With persistence, you too can overcome most anything.
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