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Growing Beyond Anger Problems

» Mental Health Library » Disorders & Conditions » Stress » Featured Article

By: Alan W. Levy, Ph.D.

Alan W. Levy, Ph.D.

Watching TV news on a daily basis, it’s easy to be left with the impression that folks are angrier than ever, and even putting their rage into action more often. Road rage is but one instance of this hostility epidemic. Referred to euphemistically as aggressive driving, anger-based distraction and extra pressure on the gas pedal contribute to a large portion of the almost 7 million automobile crashes each year in the U.S. According to statistics compiled by the National Highway Transportation Agency and AAA, 13,000 people have been injured or killed by aggressive driving since 1990. Why are some drivers so angry? One factor is that people too often feel the stress of being stuck in traffic jams. It is known that 91% of wage earners commute to work and that drivers in 1/3 of our largest cities spend 40 hours per year in traffic tie-ups.

On the home front, anger and hostility play a major role in breaking up marriages. Marital instability is on the rise in the U.S.  In the past 30 years, according to a recent study by sociologists Sheela Kennedy and Steven Ruggles at the University of Minnesota Population Center, divorce rates have dramatically increased. In a recent critical review which they published in 2014 in the journal, Demography, divorce rates have doubled for people over 35.

How does anger do its damage and contribute to heart trouble? In this brief article, I explain the physiological and psychological mechanisms that are problematic ways of handling frustration and anger.

Next, here's how the physiological mechanism of anger works in the functioning of the human body, according to the nation's top heart-brain research centers, such as the Cleveland Clinic: Emotions like anger and hostility stimulate the "fight or flight" response of the sympathetic nervous system, releasing the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. These chemicals significantly speed up the heart rate and rate of respiration. Blood pressure goes up, and the body is hit with a burst of fight-flight energy. That is often what triggers someone to fly into a rage, to begin yelling, throwing things or kicking the dog. This heightened state of physiological activation is designed to mobilize our organism for real emergencies, and has helped human beings survive the many life-threatening dangers we have encountered over the millennia.

Unfortunately for our individual survival, though, long-term arousal of the sympathic nervous system can become dangerous in its own right. Chronically high levels of stress hormones cause extra wear on the cardiovascular system. Even the walls of a person’s arteries can be damaged as well. Too much activation of mixed fight/flight response, because of the extra load of glucose and fat globules secreted into the blood stream, can take its toll on even the most civilized among us, even those of us who lean on our horns, tail-gate, or display the finger of contempt at others on the road.

The good news is that anger and hostility as risk factors for heart trouble can be changed for the better, while keeping people from doing mischief to themselves and others and damaging their health as well. Just as blood pressure or cholesterol can be modified by learning, so can the ravaging effects of uncontrolled anger issues. While stress is more challenging to measure than, for example, cholesterol or blood pressure, it is quite possible for any of us to learn to manage our emotional responses and modify them for the better. There are plenty of readily available strategies to interrupt those storms of explosive anger or prevent the damages of held-in imploded anger before it reaches the boiling point. However, the best means for any given person to cope with negativity are made possible via some individual counseling or therapy by a competent professional.

To sum up, the distress caused by anger and hostility can not only make anybody’s life measurably less than pleasant but all too often adds up to a chronic increased risk for all kinds of health issues, including cardiovascular disease. So, taking care to “keep cool” will pay off with big dividends in maintaining your physical health and well-being.

About the Author...

Dr. Alan Levy has more than 50 years of experience, working with adults with a variety of problems in life. He specializes in brief, solution-oriented therapy with older adults, troubled teenagers and their families, and committed couples wishing to improve their relationships. He has daily and evening hours available by appointment.

Click here to contact or learn more about Dr. Alan Levy

Last Update: 10/17/2018

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