This fight–or–flight response is automatic. It is the body's way of providing the strength to deal with dangerous situations. The problem is, the things that make us angry these days are rarely dangerous. Traffic jams, long lines and difficult coworkers require patience and good humor, not physical strength. Yet whenever your brain signals anger, your body reacts. And over time, all that heart–pounding turmoil can take a toll on your health in the form of heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke.
Anger can be a confusing emotion –– it's not easy to know how to handle it. So we asked Virginia Williams, Ph.D., coauthor of ”Anger Kills” (HarperCollins, 1993) and president of Williams LifeSkills in Durham, N.C., for advice on how to manage anger.
Channeling the Force
It's impossible, of course, to never get angry. Anger is a normal, natural feeling. And despite its bad rap, anger can be a good thing. It can prompt us to speak out against unfairness or mistreatment. The trick is knowing how and when to effectively express this emotion.
”Anger can be our friend or our enemy. It depends on why we get angry and what we do with those feelings,” says Dr. Williams. ”When you're angry, it's important to look at the situation and decide whether or not you should take action. It's not effective to blow up at everything that makes you angry –– or to do the opposite and accept everything.”
In the heat of the moment, how do you decide if your anger will help, hurt or do nothing for the situation?
Dr. Williams suggests immediately asking yourself these four questions:
Is this truly important to me?
When I look at the facts, is my anger appropriate?
Can I change this situation?
Is it worth it to take action?
Four ”yes” answers means you need to do some problem solving.
”Stay focused on what you want,” advises Dr. Williams. ”Do you want to blow up –– or do you want to change the situation?” A helpful approach is to use ”I” statements to review the facts, explain how you feel, and make a specific request. For example, if a coworker failed to give you an important report, you might say something like this: ”You promised that I would have the report Tuesday. It's two days late. I feel concerned because I don't have the information I need for my report. Would you please have your report to me by the end of the day?” You can use this model to assertively express your feelings in many situations.
When to Chill Out
If you answered no to any of the four questions above, then it's time to let your anger go. Here are some mellowing strategies.
Think it through. ”Stop for a moment,” suggests Dr. Williams. ”Ask yourself why you're letting this get to you.” A few slow, deep breaths may also help you relax.
Stop your thoughts. Silently tell yourself ”Stop!” when you find yourself stewing. If you're alone, say it out loud. Repeat this often enough and your mind will obey.
Distract yourself. Recall a pleasant memory –– a great vacation, a funny story, a loved one's smile. Or busy yourself with another activity, such as reading or gardening.
Exercise. A brisk walk or any other exercise will lower your stress and make you feel stronger and healthier.
Meditate. Dr. Williams calls this the most powerful strategy for helping to reduce anger. She recommends practicing every day for 10 minutes. Meditation allows you to take a mental time–out, so you can calm down.
To try it, find a quiet spot to sit. Focus your attention on slowly breathing in and out. As you breathe in, think of a relaxing word, such as ”Calm” or ”Peace.” With practice, you can use this technique whenever you feel yourself getting angry.
Healthy Habits to Reduce Stress
In addition to learning how to manage anger, the following healthy lifestyle changes can help reduce anger.
Cut down or eliminate caffeine in your diet. If you smoke, work on quitting. Nicotine and caffeine can intensify stress and anger.
Identify what triggers your anger and, if you can, avoid that situation or person
Find activities or hobbies that give you pleasure and participate in them often.
Reach out to friends and family. Explain that you're working on managing your anger, and ask for their support. Their encouragement will reinforce your efforts.
Studies show that people who repeatedly become angry over everyday stresses are setting themselves up for health problems. Chronic anger increases your risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. And it's not just people who loudly express their hostility who are at risk. Bottling up or denying your anger can also cause heart disease and problems such as stomachaches, headaches, anxiety and depression. What's more, there is evidence that short–fused folks tend to calm themselves in unhealthy ways, such as overeating, smoking and drinking alcohol. This can make them likely to die early of other causes. These are good reasons to manage anger.
No Excuse for Abuse
If you or your spouse resorts to hitting, shoving or slapping when expressing anger, you need extra help that anger management alone can't provide.
”When anger reaches the point of abuse, that's a signal that there are other deep–seated problems that need to be addressed,” says Dr. Williams.
Abusers and their victims need professional counseling. Call your EAP we can help you find a mental health professional or agency in your area. You can also visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline Web site – please see link on the left.
How to Use Your EAP
When help is needed call 1–800–433–2320 . The intake staff will ask for your name, employer and a brief description of your presenting concern. If an emergency exists you will be given immediate assistance. If your situation is not an emergency, you will be offered telephone assistance and/or in–person sessions to complete an assessment and make a referral for treatment if needed.
Meetings with your counselor are completely confidential. Your employer will not know you have used the EAP. No one will be provided any information about you without your written consent. Exceptions would occur only in the event of you being considered dangerous to yourself or someone else.
At the first appointment you should be prepared to give the counselor some background information to assist in formulating an action plan. Many people find it helpful to prepare a list of things they wish to discuss at each session.