April 15, 2012 at 1:02 PM ET
By Camille Noe Pagan
Ticked off. Fed up. Enraged. Call it what you will, but we've all been there. Anger is part of being human, says Norman Rosenthal, MD, professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School. "Problems start when you bottle it up, react now and think later, or feel that a destructive response is justified just because you're furious," he says.
In fact, both flying off the handle and wallowing can take a toll on your health, increasing pain perception, depression, and your risk of heart disease. But a healthier response can soothe stress, lower your risk of heart problems and depression, and improve your relationships. If that all sounds too good to be true, get this: Experts say we can all learn to handle our anger more effectively. Here, discover the tempo of your temper, and find yourself a better rhythm.
What Would You Do If...
Read the following scenario and pick the response that sounds closest to how you'd likely react. From there, follow the numbered teapots to your anger profile.
You and your husband have been bickering, a lot. After a volley about housework escalates into an ugly argument, you call your sister in tears and pour your heart out. She offers some sound advice and promises not to discuss the matter with anyone else. A week later, during a dinner with your extended family, your brother leans over and quietly asks whether you and your husband have made up yet. Since you haven't breathed a word of it to anyone else, it's obvious that your sister must have betrayed your confidence.
1...push away from the table and demand that your sister join you in the kitchen, then tell her, perhaps loudly, that you're appalled that she's broken your trust, and keep hammering your point until she's on the verge of tears.
2...grit your teeth and refuse to make eye contact with your sister for the rest of the night. Later, when she asks, you deny that anything's wrong, but you leave early and rigorously avoid her calls for the next couple of weeks.
3...sit through dinner with your stomach in knots, and then spend the weekend ruminating over the matter. You say nothing to your sister but resolve privately never again to confide in her about anything of importance to you.
4...put the incident out of your head for the evening, then ask your sister to meet for coffee the next day. You tell her that you're aware she betrayed you, your feelings are hurt, and it will take time for you to trust her again.
1. Your Anger Style: Reactive
You respond immediately to perceived insult or injustice, possibly yelling or even slamming doors. "Many people act this way because it tends to get results," says Simon Rego, PsyD. But what you gain in immediate gratification, you lose in long-term respect: People may view you as volatile or as someone who bullies people to get her way. "People who explode also experience a lot of guilt," says Dr. Rego. "Later, they may feel ashamed because they didn't control themselves or they know they hurt the other person." Your health suffers too: Research reveals this type of response creates stress on the heart, which is why it's been linked to an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease.
What To Do Instead
Put yourself on ice: Your goal is to not blow a gasket. Instead, challenge yourself to think through your feelings. Reactive people often believe that those who don't come out swinging are weak, says Dr. Rego, but "in reality, waiting is a sign of strength, because it shows self-control."
Breathe: When the telltale signs of a temper tantrum hit, rapid heartbeat, flushed face, tense muscles, the urge to yell, take 10 breaths, each so deep that your belly extends out as you exhale. This technique circulates extra oxygen and brings on the flow of calming hormones such as serotonin, says Dr. Rosenthal.
Get strategic: When your heart stops racing, usually within 10 minutes, but up to an hour for some people, it's an indication you've moved past the fight-or-flight stage, which is what triggers your instinct to lash out. "Then it's okay to show that you're displeased with the situation; you just want to do it in a healthy way," stresses Dr. Rego. "Your challenge is to formulate a rational response that preserves your relationship and your self-respect, before you open your mouth."
State your feelings: "You could say to your sister, 'You really hurt me when you told other people about my marital problems,'" says Dr. Rosenthal. "You want to avoid judging or labeling the other person, as that can lead to an argument."
Take a long-term approach: Dr. Rosenthal recommends incorporating yoga or meditation into your daily life; both are effective at reducing chronic anger, and experts believe that anger is akin to a bad habit: The more often you lose your cool, the more you feel empowered to do it.
2. Your Anger Style: Passive-Aggressive
"Passive-aggressive" is practically a dirty word, but most of us express negative feelings in this way from time to time. Trouble is, passive-aggressive behavior (think indirectly attacking the other person, sabotaging her or gossiping about her, withholding praise, making digs, or giving the silent treatment) is easy for others to spot and can lead to the very thing you hoped to avoid: a confrontation. Equally problematic, passive-aggressive people spend a lot of time thinking about how they've been wronged, which causes them emotional and physical distress, such as increased pain and anxiety.
What To Do Instead
Own it: "Passive-aggressive people often don't feel entitled to have strong emotions. Accepting that someone has upset you is the first step," says Dr. Rosenthal.
Check yourself: Not sure if you're being passive-aggressive? Ask yourself, How would I feel if someone else behaved this way with me? If the answer is Not great, then stop what you're doing.
Talk to the mirror: If you struggle with taking direct action when you're upset, rehearse what you want to say in private, recommends Anthony Tasso, PhD.
Voice your needs: Start by stating a mutual goal (preserving the relationship, making up, clearing the air), then move on to your feelings, says Dr. Rosenthal.
3. Your Anger Style: Avoidant
Acting like everything's fine when it isn't can literally make you sick. "Internalizing damages your self-esteem, because you feel weak and unable to assert your own needs. That can contribute to depression," says Jair Soares, MD. It can also make you ill with worry, which is why studies show that repressing anger can result in heart problems, digestive issues, and depression the same way exploding in anger can. "Bottling up anger causes a rush of negative stress hormones in the body, taxing the cardiovascular system," explains Dr. Soares.
What To Do Instead
Learn to recognize your rage: Avoidant types often have trouble knowing when they're miffed. If you catch yourself ducking someone or claiming to be "really stressed," scan your recent interactions for a trigger event.
Face your fears: "Avoidance usually stems from an unspoken worry, such as ending a relationship by making your feelings known," says Dr. Rego. "But your dread is often unfounded." Once you see that, it's easier to take action.
Practice! "Challenge yourself to be firm and forward with another person at least once a day," recommends Dr. Rego. "As you get more adept, you'll find it's easier to do so on other occasions."
4. Your Anger Style: Direct
You have no problem admitting when you're ticked off, but instead of saying whatever pops into your mind at the time, you formulate a rational, constructive, and respectful approach before opening your mouth. This response is ideal, says Dr. Rego, and you should continue to use it. "Being straightforward is the most effective way to get through anger to a positive, swift resolution," agrees Dr. Rosenthal. "It shows you're respectful of others' needs and feelings, but you take your own emotions into account too."
You Could Also...
Pick your battles: Not every situation requires an action. "For example, if your sister is the type to blow up and turn any difficult conversation into a huge feud," says Dr. Rosenthal, "the best response might be to accept that she betrayed your trust this once, and let it go."
Continue to sharpen your communication skills: Although you may feel assertive in most areas of your life, you could find yourself over-or underreacting to certain individuals. This is often the case with family members, says Dr. Rego. To brush up on how to handle these situations, read the other anger styles above and try to identify patterns: Are there instances when you respond passive-aggressively or in an avoidant manner? If so, try modifying your responses in those situations too.