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Looking back at anger without regret

Vicious politicians, corrupt administrators, spluttering television anchors... Everyone’s been spewing venom and acting out to grab air and mind space. The result: frayed nerves and rising tempers in a politically charged atmosphere, writes Sanchita Sharma.

columns Updated: May 18, 2014 00:09 IST
Sanchita Sharma

If words and looks could kill, more people have died in the weeks leading up to this Lok Sabha results than the combined four seasons of the Game of Thrones. Vicious politicians, corrupt administrators, trash-talking party workers, spluttering television anchors... Everyone’s been spewing venom and acting out to grab air and mind space. The result: frayed nerves and rising tempers in a politically charged atmosphere.

Nothing raises tempers faster than politics and religion, followed by football. Well channelised, anger can drive change and change history. Uncontrolled, it can destroy people and communities, slowly and surely.

Arguing and worrying over social situations kill you sooner than later, with arguments with partners, children and friends raising your risk of dying before reaching 60 years two- to three-fold, showed data on nearly 10,000 men and women aged 36 to 52 in Denmark, reported the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health this month. Using data from the Danish Cause of Death Registry, researchers from the University of Copenhagen tracked participants from 2000 to 2011. Over that period, 196 women (4%) and 226 men (6%) had died. Nearly half the deaths were from cancer. Heart disease and stroke, liver disease, accidents and suicide accounted for the rest.

Anger is a natural response to a violation of how we perceive things should be, be it anger against bad drivers cutting in or colleagues shirking work. Anger is the biological trigger for the fight-or-flight response, which gears up the body to fight to survive the wrong. Energy hormones such as adrenalin and noradrenaline surge, and the part of the brain that deals with emotion (amygdale) gets charged. To counter the rush, blood flow increases to the brain’s frontal lobe that controls reasoning and inhibits response. The neurological response to anger lasts less than two seconds, which is why counting to 10 before lashing out works as a control strategy.

How angry you feel also depends on your genes and socio-cultural environment. For example, people who are aggressive and angry easily usually come from families that are disruptive, chaotic, and not skilled at emotional communications. Adults either bottle up and react in passive-aggressive ways, such as sulking, sarcasm or destructive gossip, or lash out loudly and aggressively, which does nothing to resolve the situation.

While men and women have the same anger levels, they express anger differently, mainly because it’s more socially acceptable for men to be aggressive. Men’s anger is more likely to be abstract as they are more often angered by strangers, objects that aren’t working correctly and larger societal issues. Anger in women is more linked with emotion and is likely to be triggered by relationships. Children’s anger tends to be about goals being blocked and they get mad if they don’t get what they want.

A persistently angry or tense situation puts physical stress on the body and has been linked to almost every possible disease, from diabetes, heart attack and stroke to depression, anxiety and impotence. People with chronic anger have twice the risk of heart disease and three times the risk of heart attack than others, with some experts listing chronic anger as a bigger risk factor for early death than smoking and obesity.

Anger management involves identifying triggers, expressing anger without losing control and relaxation methods. The key to control is tempering the triggers that set you off by strengthening the way you evaluate whether anger is a justifiable response to a situation. Expressing your angry feelings in an assertive, as opposed to aggressive, way can prevent you from tipping over. Also, avoid using words like “always” and “never” in conflict-resolution – for example, “you always mess up,” “you never listen” – as they are judgmental and suggest there is no solution.

We can’t stop people from acting out, but we can tune it out. The American Psychological Association suggests using relaxation tools (music, deep breathing, relaxing imagery), cognitive restructuring (replacing exaggerated and overly dramatic thoughts with more rational ones), problem solving (try to resolve the issue but don’t punish yourself if you can’t), talk rationally (don’t blurt out the first thing that comes into your head), juvenile humour (defuse rage by picturing your belligerent colleague as a fat slug behind a desk), and changing the environment (take out alone time to do things you enjoy).

We all need people. Loneliness, when perceived, brings the same health risk as a lifetime of smoking, with people with no fewer family and friends having shorter lives. The trick is to be with the people you love and block out the ones that stress you out.