angry people
Mental & Emotional Health

The Anger Epidemic: How It Affects Mental and Physical Health

Irate people seem to be everywhere these days, on airplanes, in cars, at school, on social media platforms and at political rallies across the country.  In fact, voter rage often makes more headlines than the candidates seeking office.

Has anger reached a fever pitch in America?

According to a November 2015 national survey conducted by NBC, Survey Monkey and Esquire magazine, half of Americans reported feeling angrier today than they did just a year ago.  Read the complete survey results here and visit this link to take a quiz connected to see how your feelings compare to the survey respondents.

While this increased anger is a concern, it’s important to remember that anger is a natural human reaction tied to the body’s fight or flight response.  The challenge is to find ways to experience these intense feelings but not let them spiral out-of-control.

What’s So Bad About Being Mad?

Here is what happens when the body feels the first flicker of anger:  The brain’s amygdala instantly springs into action, sending an internal alarm and triggering the adrenal glands to release both adrenaline and testosterone.  Sensing these changes, the body responds by tensing muscles, increasing the heart rate, raising blood pressure and flooding the body with stress chemicals.

Internally, these reactions transpire in a matter of seconds.

Signs of the anger then become visible to others as the body displays changes in facial expressions, stance and breathing rates.

“Anger is a survival response that happens automatically when we feel threatened or unsafe,” said Donald Altman, M.A., LPC, speaker and author of “101 Mindful Ways to Build Resilience: Cultivate Calm, Clarity, Optimism and Happiness Each Day.”

Most individuals will experience anger by feeling mad or even livid in the short-term, yet they can moderate these intense emotions and eventually let them go.  They don’t allow their anger to fester and consume their lives.

However, an increasing number of people are being held hostage by their unresolved feelings of rage. If not released, the anger may become ingrained and adversely affect personal and professional relationships as well as mental and physical health.

“If anger happens enough, it gets hardwired into the brain and becomes a habit,” said Altman.

This deeply rooted anger is especially challenging.  To cope, some people have learned how to compartmentalize their wrath.

Donna Highfill, a midlife writer, author, and speaker, describes herself as a passionate person who is quick to react.  She can rage for 30 seconds over a dropped pencil, but she won’t seethe for years over a situation.

As a mom of two adult children, Highfill says she was always able to control anger issues when her kids were growing up, rarely losing her cool.  However, her trigger-quick reactions may have cost her professionally.  “Over the years, I’ve given up on work situations sooner than I should have, primarily due to my impatience with the situation,” she said.

When Feelings of Anger Boil Over

While Highfill has developed an ability to keep a lid on most of her anger, many others cannot.

Chronically angry people are unable to tame their tempers, often lashing out at others and displaying inappropriate behavior.  Unable to modulate their reactions, their behavior can escalate into verbal abuse or physical violence.  These people are usually incapable of seeing how their actions affect others, and they will spend an inordinate amount of time rationalizing and justifying their position and actions.

Over time, their rage develops into a circular, toxic pattern of behavior.

On the flip side, some people experience similar deep-seated fury, but instead of expressing those feelings they repress them.  These individuals are also being held captive by their rage, unable to let it go and move on.

This unmanaged anger – either expressed or repressed – will eventually cause harm to many different systems of the body.  Some conditions include headaches, depression, anxiety, insomnia, lowered immune system and high blood pressure.  If untreated, extreme anger can even contribute to coronary heart disease and stroke.

Learning to Manage and Release Rage

The good news, according to Altman, is that curtailing anger is a learned skill.  He recommends using these four tactics when anger strikes.

  1. Rate the anger as small, medium or extreme. An example of extreme anger would be when you lose control, shout, curse, or throw something across the room. Assigning a rate allows a person to detach for a moment rather than acting immediately.
  2. Take three calming breaths, relax posture and facial expressions. Smiling is a good idea because it is difficult to be angry when you are smiling.
  3. Ask questions about the anger. What and what triggered it? Was my response appropriate?  How old is this anger?  Simply asking can help break old patterns.
  4. Identify more effective responses. If this isn’t achievable, then do something calming, such as taking a walk or listening to soothing music.

For long-term help to resolve anger issues, visit a doctor for a physical exam which would rule out any underlying health problems.  Then, seek out a mental health professional or another counselor who can provide perspective and direction.

Helpful tools include meditating, spending time in nature, pet therapy, and exercising regularly.

Anger is an innate human response, and it will never be eliminated. The key is to understand the feelings, manage them and channel them in a way that will benefit the individual as well as our society.

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