For most of us, anger rises and falls relatively quickly – disappearing altogether for long periods, before perhaps returning with momentary vengeance. But for some people, it’s never far from the surface and can result in frequent physical and verbal outbursts that wreak untold havoc.
Media headlines regularly holler about out-of-control politicians and athletes letting their fury get the better of them. Then there are reports of high-profile people receiving counselling on how to put the not-so-friendly genie back in the bottle.
For these reasons, managing the anger that disrupts lives has become a small industry and researchers in Australia and around the world are employing everything from chilli sauce to magnetic resonance images (MRIs) to determine the mechanisms behind anger and, where necessary, how to control it.
So when does part of the normal emotional spectrum become a problem? And what can be done to stop it causing physical and emotional damage?
Typically, anger arouses the central nervous system, triggering symptoms similar to the ‘fight or flight’ response in the amygdala region of the brain. When you get angry your blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate all increase; your digestion slows; and you start to sweat.
There is already some evidence that people who experience these anger symptoms regularly may be doing long-term damage to their heart and other organs.
In particular, a US study found one in every 40 heart attacks can be linked to a recent incidence of anger. As well, a 2004 international study linked family conflict and work stress – both common sources of anger – to an increased risk of heart attack.
The bottom line is that learning how to manage anger may not only improve your quality of life, it may also extend it.
But there are many other ways to short-circuit anger’s effects.
At the University of New South Wales, where MRIs have been used to map the pathways of anger in the brain, research suggests simple distraction can be an effective tool.
UNSW researcher and psychologist Dr Tom Denson believes distracting yourself works better than trying to analyse what you’re feeling.
‘It’s kind of counterintuitive, because people think that when they’re angry, you’ve got to think your way through it,” Denson says. ‘[But] people who ruminate tend to eventually lose control.
“What we’re finding, is that with something distracting – although it’s probably not good to go play a violent video game – with a distraction that’s neutral and consuming, it’s much better for diminishing anger… Distraction allows all of the anger to subside.”
Sitting down to read a book, or even cooking a meal, may be enough to allow the height of the emotion to subside and enable you to approach the problem with less aggression at a later stage.
At Macquarie University however, Dr Wayne Warburton is less sold on the notion of distraction and instead suggests learning to redirect anger to more positive outcomes.
Anger can motivate someone to reach extreme sporting achievements or write beautiful music, he says.
“Some of the great concertos and some of the most beautiful music – Bob Dylan’s music, Neal Young’s music – is written out of anger, but it helps to make the world a better place.
“I think good anger management helps to harness the energy to look for positive expressions, and focus it so that the expression of anger is related directly to what makes the person angry. That’s a helpful way of dealing with anger.
Warburton says we all have different triggers for our anger and we can all express it in a whole range of different ways. But his research suggests that repeated exposure to violent media – including some computer games – can make it much more likely that anger manifests itself as aggression.
He and his colleagues have been gauging the level of aggression triggered by different stimuli using an excruciating method – measuring how much very hot chilli sauce a person is prepared to make an innocent volunteer eat.
“They know that if they put a lot in the cup it’s going to make the person’s mouth burn, their eyes water, perhaps make their tongue go numb and if they give them too much it will probably put them in hospital. Despite that, you still get people who will put in a whole cup.’
It might seem an unorthodox approach but it’s revealing a clear pattern: Expose yourself to violent media regularly and ‘each time it happens, you’re more likely to respond to triggers with aggressive behaviour.’ The take home message is that if rage is a problem in your life, avoiding violent influences may help you keep it under control.