America has become a hothouse for hotheads. From highways and homes to TV and talk radio, fury and frustration abound. "We live in an argument culture, where aggression is rewarded unwittingly as the 'squeaky wheel,'" says W. Robert Nay, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and author of Taking Charge of Anger. "We're also a very stress-ridden culture. We're on alert at all times, whether it's at the workplace, on the highways or at home. Being in this constant state of high arousal makes us more likely to act out our anger when things don't go smoothly."
The fact that anger doesn't always show up as straightforward aggression complicates matters, says Nay. While some people express their ire in familiar ways, such as being ill-tempered with a spouse or chewing out a colleague who botched a project, others mask their hostility. That concealed rage may bubble up in the form of constant griping, catty gossip, cutting remarks, sarcasm, the silent treatment or writing people off with no explanation. Drinking and overeating are also common ways of numbing our feelings and taking the edge off our anger, says Deborah Cox, Ph.D., a psychologist at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield and co-author of The Anger Advantage.
Bottling up anger can have unhealthy repercussions. A University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine study found that women who didn't deal with their anger were more likely to exhibit early signs of heart disease. In her own research, Cox found that people who tried either to conceal their anger or externalize it by blaming others were at higher risk for anxiety, tension and panic attacks.
Self-esteem suffers, too. Those who beat themselves up for being spineless "feed a sense of powerlessness that is directly associated with depression," says Beverly Engel, a therapist in Los Osos, Calif., and author of Honor Your Anger.
a healthy rage
Anger isn't all bad: It can be a positive force, providing the impetus we need to make enriching, life-altering changes. Anger may help us come to a deeper understanding of ourselves or others, and it can be used as a springboard to help liberate ourselves from stagnant, abusive or suffocating relationships at home or at the office.
Studies at Hofstra University in New York found that anger episodes had positive long-term results 40 percent of the time, and that one-third of subjects felt such an incident let them realize their own faults.
"Anger can spark a clarity that helps us see situations in a different light," says Cox. That moment of truth may give us the courage to challenge an incorrect bill, change jobs or overcome a longstanding problem in a marriage.
what's your style?
Personally, it took the loss of a close friendship to make me realize that I had a problem with anger. Like many people, I kept mine locked away. Then something would set me off--a friend forgetting to call me or being late for a dinner date--and the indignation that had simmered for months over other minor slights would boil over.
Instantly, I'd regret my eruption and apologize profusely to patch things up. But one time, it was different. "Saying you're sorry doesn't make it OK," a friend curtly informed me.
I was stunned. To me, my anger was like lightning in a summer storm: a quick flash, then gone. But the experience with my friend made me realize that not everyone could brush off my outbursts so easily.