Getting angry, in some cases, can sap your strength more than spending the day cleaning your house or even running a marathon. This isn’t too surprising when you consider what this intense emotion does to your body. All sorts of anger, from little irritations to major blowups, produce a rise in your body’s levels of adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones, increasing your blood pressure and speeding up your heartbeat; the strength of the reaction depends on the degree of anger and your own physiology. “Studies show that when people even talk about an event that made them angry in the past – say, their luggage was lost at the airport or someone rear-ended their car – they show significant signs of cardiovascular arousal,” says Margaret Chesney, a researcher of the effects of stress on women’s health and a professor at the school of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
This arousal comes from our evolutionary “fight or flight” instinct, which prepares us to do battle, explains Chesney. While this response was invaluable to our ancestors, who had to fend off saber-toothed tigers and enemy cavemen, it can be a hindrance if you’re mad at your boss or your child’s teacher. Suddenly you feel like lashing out at someone or pounding your fists on a tabletop.
If the intensity of the reaction frightens or even embarrasses you, you may try to suppress it. “Women are taught to deny the expression of legitimate anger,” says Harriet Goldhor Lerner, a psychologist in Topeka, Kansas, and author of The Dance of Anger and The Dance of Deception. But holding in your anger – or, conversely, venting it in huge upsetting outbursts – only serves to heighten the hormonal havoc that anger can wreak, leaving you that much more drained and depressed after the reaction subsides.
How to Transform Your Anger
So what should you do? The best course of action will depend on the degree of your anger and its cause. When you feel mildly upset, it’s best simply to recognize that you’re angry and let the feeling pass. But when you feel anger welling up inside you, it’s time to make a conscious effort to manage it. The following plan will bring your wrath under control and, at the same time, allow you to use it as a wellspring of energy and motivation.
Step 1: Harness your outbursts. Instead of trying to suppress energy, use the energy it brings to do something constructive. An obvious solution is to exercise. Take a long walk or go to a nearby park and hit some tennis balls against a wall. An equally effective alternative: Use your anger as the fuel you need to dig into energy-demanding chores you’ve been neglecting. Wash your car, organize your closets, replant your garden or do some yard work. Or if you’re at work, do that filing you’ve been putting off or open a stack of mail. In fact, you may even want to think through a list of anger-diffusing tasks now, so you’re prepared.
A side benefit of these kinds of tasks: They’ll give you a sense of accomplishment that acts as an added boost.
Step 2: Make a plan. Another way to feel in control – and energized – is to determine how you’re going to handle the anger-provoking person or situation. This process is much easier after you’ve calmed down.
For example, say you got a letter from your insurance company on Friday afternoon saying they have denied a claim. You’re upset because you think they should have paid it. You can either spend the weekend cursing the company, or you can decide to do everything you can to correct the situation. Look at the bill again and find the number to call to speak to a customer-service representative, pull out any documents you need to back up your case, and resolve to call the company first thing Monday, suggests Chesney.
“Once this plan is in place, you should be able to let go of the problem over the weekend and use the energy you would have spent obsessing about it for more worthwhile projects, such as entertaining friends or planning the next quilt you’d like to make. Even if you can’t resolve a problem immediately, you’ll have hope that it will be resolved,” says Sandra Thomas, director of the center for nursing research at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and author of Women and Anger. “This lets you be more productive in other areas of your life.”
Step 3: Uncover hidden energy-sappers. Sometimes the true cause of your ire isn’t immediately obvious. Let’s say you get extremely mad at your husband over a relatively minor event – like his being a few minutes late for dinner. If you seem to be overreacting, try to uncover the real reason you’re mad. Maybe your husband’s tardiness is just one example of how he often disregards your feelings.
If you need help getting to the root of your anger, talk through your feelings with someone you trust, or write about what you’re going through. Each time you get angry, write down exactly what happened, how it made you feel and why you got so upset, suggests James Pennebaker, a psychologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who is the author of Opening Up: The Healing Power of Confiding in Others. Chances are, you’ll begin to see a pattern. Once you’ve identified the sources of your problem, you can start taking steps to solve it.
It’s unrealistic to think you can resolve every problem that makes you angry, but you can usually come up with at least a partial solution. For example, even though Katrina Bly can’t change her mother, she’s found a way to cope with the insults. She says, calmly, “What you said really hurt my feelings.” Then, instead of wasting all her energy in a no-win spat, she goes out and releases tension by going for a walk or taking an aerobics class.
Feeling empowered by your results may be the ultimate source of energy. You’ll feel better about yourself and have the confidence to tackle other angering problems in the future.
~contributed by Cheryl Sacra