How to Channel Your Anger So It Won’t Harm Your Health
“The Female Anger Epidemic.”
Such was the headline of a 2015 Daily Mail article. It went on to reference the British Association of Anger Management, which found that 87 percent of working mothers had admitted to shouting at their children because of stress. A quarter of women were said to suffer serious office-rage, and to regularly kick furniture or slam down phone receivers in fury.
It’s not just in the United Kingdom, though. An anger poll conducted by NBC News and Esquire found that American women were angrier than men—53 percent vs. 44 percent. And another telephone survey that included about 1,800 people between the ages of 18 and 94 also found that women reported higher frequencies of anger, annoyance, yelling, and losing their tempers than men.
But wait, don’t women usually repress their anger? Well, that’s what’s typically believed—that women are taught that anger is not appropriate, and thus they are more likely to repress rather than express it. But some studies have challenged that view, too.
According to a study published in the journal Contemporary Family Therapy, women are more likely to experience and express more anger in relationships then they do generally in their lives, and—in a surprising finding—they are less likely than men to control the anger they feel. In that survey mentioned above, as well, men were more likely than women to report that they kept their emotions to themselves.
Whether you express or repress your anger, it could be hurting your health. Research suggests that suppressed rage and frequent angry outbursts can increase risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, certain cancers, and even premature death. On the other hand, anger, when managed properly, can be a healthy, useful emotion for women.
Are Women Angrier Today than In the Past?
We have few studies actually tracking anger in women over the years, but there have been a lot of news reports lately that suggest more women are feeling angry.
The British Association of Anger Management, as noted above, released a report entitled Boiling Point: Problem Anger and What We Can Do About It, in which they stated: “There is evidence to suggest that societal changes are contributing to a rise in emotional problems. Public polling carried out for this report indicates that a majority of the population believe that people in general are getting angrier.”
They went on to say that anger alone is not the problem, calling it “one of our most powerful and vital tools.” It’s how we deal with it—how we express it and use it to solve rather than create problems.
“Why are Women Angry?” is the title of a 2017 article in The Times, and in January of last year, women artists gathered in New York to kick off their “Uprise/Angry Women” art exhibit. In an August 2017 op-ed in Teen Vogue, author Laurie Penny stated, “Many women you know are angrier than you can possibly imagine.”
Why all this anger? There are a myriad of reasons, from political to personal to occupational. This article isn’t about why we’re angry, but how that anger is affecting us.
How Does Anger Affect Women’s Health?
Studies show that whether you burst into a rage or repress your anger, you’re playing with fire. If you find that you’re losing your cool more often than usual, you’re likely increasing your risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke, and you may be weakening your immune system, making you more likely to get sick.
According to a 2014 study, episodes of intense anger can trigger a heart attack and stroke, particularly if you already have risk factors (high blood pressure, narrowing arteries, etc.). The scientists added that the increased risk lasted for two hours after the episode. Multiple studies have also found that anger can increase inflammation in the body, and can significantly affect the performance of the immune system.
Repressing that anger can be just as dangerous. In a 2000 study, researchers examined the connection between anger and cancer, and wrote, “There is evidence to show that suppressed anger can be a precursor to the development of cancer, and also a factor in its progression after diagnosis.”
In a 2014 study, researchers found that people who suppress their anger have a 70 percent higher risk of dying from cancer, with another study confirming that “women showed direct relationships between suppressed anger and early mortality” from all causes, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.
There are many more examples of studies linking either of these approaches to anger with a number of very serious health problems. If more women are angrier today than ever, it’s logical to assume that many of them are dealing with it in unhealthy ways. There was no “anger management” class in school for most of us. We feel the anger and we react instinctively. Fortunately, we don’t have to continue doing that.
How Women Can Use Their Anger in Positive Ways
Anger can be a very useful emotion when channeled in the right way. It gives us energy, motivates action, and helps overcome fear. If you’re confused about just how to deal with your anger in any particular moment, it may help to remember this advice from Psych Central writer Christine Hammond, MS, LMHC:
“Anger is expressed in one of four ways. Three out of the four types are unhealthy manifestations: aggressive, passive-aggressive and suppressive. While only one, assertive, is healthy.”
We’ve talked about aggressive anger (kicking the furniture) and repressive or suppressive anger (swallowing your feelings and putting on a fake smile). But what is “passive-aggressive?” Examples include giving someone the “silent treatment,” or intentionally missing deadlines or arriving late for an appointment.
Assertive anger, on the other hand, addresses the conflict directly, while seeking to resolve it. It is not blaming or shaming, and is respectful, but takes responsibility while speaking up for one’s needs and for what’s right.
Below are some tips to help you manage your anger in healthy ways. Be patient—it takes time to learn any skill—but you can get better at it with time and practice. It’s well worth the effort for your health and well-being.
- Take a break to cool down: When you’re angry, you’re likely to say things you’re likely to regret. Take a few minutes to get away from the situation, and get active. Anger revs up the body’s fight or flight system, driving up cortisol (stress hormone) levels and poising your muscles for action. You need to release all that by taking a walk, climbing a few sets of stairs, punching a pillow, running in place, or whatever you can do. Release the energy, then allow yourself to calm down before returning to the situation.
- State your concerns: This is important—don’t repress your anger at this point. Find a way to state it either to the person or people involved, or if you can’t address them, in your journal or in a letter to yourself. Get your thoughts out in a clear way. Try to take responsibility for your own feelings rather than blame someone else. Use “I” messages: “I felt very hurt when you…” or “I felt disrespected when you…” Take your time to get the message just right. Often, just getting your thoughts out on paper or on a computer document (without sending it) can go a long way toward dissipating your anger.
- Find a solution: Think about how you can solve this problem. Anger can be used to make things better! Realize that you probably can’t control the behavior of others. You can let them know how you feel, but the only person you can control is you. What can you do to help yourself feel better about this situation? If your partner is always late to meetings with you, for example, let him or her know how that makes you feel, and state that from now on, if he isn’t there on time, you will leave.
- Beware turning your anger on yourself: If you start doubting yourself, blaming yourself, or feeling like everything is your fault, stop. This is a classic sign of repression. Ask yourself if you really are responsible for this situation, or if someone else is. Ask what you truly believe about it, not what your fear or anger wants you to believe. Don’t be afraid to talk to a therapist if you need to. Repression is dangerous. Learning to speak up about your feelings can be a very freeing experience.
- Catch yourself acting out your anger in other ways: If you fall into giving someone the silent treatment, or if you feel like sabotaging something in retribution, stop yourself. This is a passive-aggressive pattern, and can lead to health problems. Realize that you have every right to be angry. Gather your courage and speak up. It can be scary in the moment, but you’ll likely feel much better afterward, and your anger will no longer be eating you up from inside. Just be sure to use your “I” messages, and to speak up with a desire to find a solution with the other person.
Finally, make sure you’re regularly incorporating stress-relieving activities into your days, so that you’re releasing that anger and stress away where it can’t hurt your health. Spend time with some friends, exercise regularly, get a message, go to a yoga or dance class, climb a mountain, do some knitting—whatever makes you happy. You deserve daily happiness!
Rachel Rounds, “The female ANGER epidemic. Worried by the way you lash out under stress—at home, in the office or the car? You’re part of a very disturbing trend,” Daily Mail, January 18, 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2915804/The-female-ANGER-epidemic-Worried-way-lash-stress-home-office-car-Youre-disturbing-trend.html.
Jodie L. Kocur, Jerry L. Deffenbacher, “Anger and Anger’s Expression Generally and in Romantic Relationships,” Contemporary Family Therapy, March 2014; 36(1):120-134, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10591-013-9271-5.
Esquire Editors, “American Rage: The Esquire/NBC News Survey,” Esquire, January 3, 2016, http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a40693/american-rage-nbc-survey/.
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