When you hear the words “anger problem,” you don’t think of someone like Bethany. Actually, the 40-year-old sales analyst and mom of one in Brooklyn, N.Y., says she rarely gets full-throttle angry. Instead, she’ll spend weeks stewing over a self-entitled co-worker or her own hatred of the gym. Nobody would know, though; she keeps it all to herself.
Which is exactly the problem: not feeling anger—which is hardwired into the human brain—but burying that useful emotional response until it turns into a quiet simmering. While some women vent and move on, many of us were taught to not make a scene. We’re overworked, sleep-deprived, always on call and generally cranky about it. And as anyone with a social media account knows, we feel outraged daily—about GMOs, Common Core, the Kardashians, you name it. In fact, “the modern, connected lifestyle has put us in an almost constant state of tension,” says Ryan Martin, PhD, chair of the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and founder of the blog All the Rage.
While you don’t want to explode, holding in the emotion could be just as bad for you. “Rumination is like a ticking time bomb,” says Matthew J. Zawadzki, PhD, assistant professor of psychological sciences at the University of California, Merced. A paper he co-authored a few years ago suggested that simply thinking about whatever pissed you off days, weeks, or even months earlier jacks up your blood pressure and heart rate as much as the original event did.
Whether you stew or rage, your anger is trying to tell you something—about your life, mind, and body. Here’s how to use it as a catalyst for change.
As bad as being peeved feels, it’s actually a protective response to what usually starts out as fear or pain, explains Veronica Rojas, MD, a psychiatrist and co-founder of the Mindfulness Forum of Ridgewood in Ridgewood, N.J. Before you can even make sense of a threat, your amygdala, the almond-shaped emotion center of the brain, triggers a release of adrenaline and other stress hormones. Your energy surges as your breathing quickens and your heart rate and blood pressure rise. “Your face might flush, your thoughts narrow, and it’s very difficult to think about anything else for a few minutes,” says Dr. Rojas.
It takes several seconds for that initial burst of fear or pain to become anger. As you start thinking things through, your analytical prefrontal cortex—the brain’s chief decision maker—contextualizes the threat: Why does she speak to me that way? How am I still working at this crappy job? “That’s why we call anger a secondary emotion,” explains Dr. Rojas. “It never occurs alone.” It’s your brain’s way of jolting you out of a vulnerable place and into self-protection mode.
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Most of us stop short of putting on the boxing gloves. The prefrontal cortex nips angry impulses in the bud. But if you constantly tamp down your annoyance, those blood-pumping stress hormones can remain elevated, says Dr. Rojas. This kind of prolonged stress leaves you more prone to a host of illnesses and diseases, found 2012 research from Carnegie Mellon University—partly by interfering with your immune system’s ability to regulate inflammation throughout the body.
Short-term simmering all too often becomes chronic: The higher your stress level, the more an otherwise minor issue (like someone swiping your skinny latte) makes you ready to burst into flames. Snapping—whether it’s at that coffee thief or your vaccine-skipping friends— can worsen matters. “Anger is the most viral emotion,” says Martin. It’s more contagious than joy and sadness, according to a 2013 study that looked at social networks.
Brooding over your feelings may be no better: A study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology showed that rumination contributes to depression and anxiety. When Dr. Rojas sees patients suffering from either of the above, it often turns out to be rooted in years of anger.
The same can be true for high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, and a host of other chronic ailments, all of which can be exacerbated by persistently high levels of stress hormones, says Mary Coussons-Read, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. And, tellingly, married couples who regularly suppress anger have a higher risk of premature death than those who express it, according to University of Michigan research.
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Of course, the news isn’t great for folks who repeatedly lash out, either. Recent research in the European Heart Journal showed that the risk of heart attack is nearly five times higher in the two hours after an angry outburst.
How to get mad
So what’s a ticked-off girl to do? Remember that anger is a flashing sign telling you to address something. “Conflict is healthy only if you try to figure out what’s wrong and do something about it,” says Ernest Harburg, PhD, research scientist emeritus in epidemiology and psychology at the University of Michigan. First, though, take a moment to note the reaction: “If anger arises, observe your bodily sensations without trying to push them away,” advises Susan Smalley, PhD, professor emeritus of psychiatry and founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. Relax your shoulders and breathe deeply so your stomach slowly rises and falls—all cues to the mind that your body is calming down.
Leave the scene if you can, adds Gail Saltz, MD, a Health contributing editor and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City: “It’s OK to say, ‘I notice myself feeling pretty topped out. I want to be able to discuss this logically, so I’m going to take a walk.’” Even ducking into the ladies’ room gives you a few minutes to reset. For Dr. Rojas, running a stream of water over one wrist does the trick. For Coussons-Read, it’s singing “Viva Las Vegas” in her head.
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With calm should come the clarity needed to problem-solve, says Gretchen Rubin, best-selling author of The Happiness Project and Better Than Before. “If you feel angry going to work every day,” she asks, “is it because work seems meaningless? Because you can never get all your tasks done? Or because you have a conflict with a co-worker?” They’re all legit reasons—each with its own path to resolution.
Asking yourself questions like this may loosen anger’s grip, letting you see events in context. “A common setup for anger is not thinking about what the other person is going through,” says Alice Domar, PhD, executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Boston. Then you can get to constructive dialogue, which allows you to avoid the feeling of powerlessness that can cause anxiety and depression. It’s all about taking action—only not in anger this time.
Pre-anger is a thing. Here’s how to diffuse it
The prickly, stressed-out state we’re often in before an angry stimulus hits—what psychologists call “pre-anger”—is important to manage to avoid full-on rage. These little steps will help keep insignificant triggers from getting you worked up.
1. Hide the right 10 Facebook friends
You know—the ones forever posting crappy news you have no power to change. Get them off your feed for a month and see if you miss waking up to the angst.
2. Don’t get hangry
A healthy carb with fiber combined with a little protein—like an apple and a cup of yogurt, or whole-wheat crackers with peanut butter—will help keep blood sugar and mood on an even keel.
3. Declutter your desk
No one is saying you have to go all Marie Kondo, “but many people feel calmer and more in control when their work and living spaces are tidy,” says happiness expert Gretchen Rubin.
4. Do one thing at a time
Studies show that multitasking makes us sloppy and less efficient. And as Ryan Martin, PhD, points out, it pretty much ensures you’ll feel constantly interrupted and snippy about it.