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Stress Mastery : Pathways Through Anger - The Nature of Anger

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Physiologically, anger is arousal. When you are angry, the fight-or-flight response has been activated. Something has stressed you, and your body has prepared you to either fight or flee. Clearly, anger helps you if you need to fight. The problem is that when we are stressed we tend to look around to see what is making us angry. That is, we tend to externalize the sources of our anger or stress. We assume that something out there is causing our arousal. This is true not just with humans, but with our animal cousins as well. For example, imagine a lab rat in a box whose floor is covered with an electric grid. If that rat is alone and we shock it, the rat will jump, look for an escape route, and manifest clear signs of arousal. If we put another lab rat in the box with our first rat, and then shock them both, the rats will attack each other. It's as if the rats are blaming each other for the shock.

Frequently when under stress we behave just like our friends the rats. We look around for who is to blame for our uncomfortable feelings and sensations without being consciously aware of what we are doing. Yet even more problematic, paradoxically, those with whom we feel most comfortable are the most likely targets of our direct aggression. The old saying, “You always hurt the ones you love,” is really true. Don't get us wrong. You may also get angry with people with whom you are not close or comfortable, but you are more likely to express your anger toward them indirectly. This is particularly true if they are in a position of authority over you. So instead of telling your boss how angry he or she makes you, you might just complain to your cronies at the water fountain or over lunch. Then when you go home at the end of the day and your spouse or significant other does something even mildly annoying, you are ready to literally bite his or her head off.

This tendency to attribute the source of our uncomfortable feelings to an external agent further aggravates the problem because “putting it out there” lowers our control. Remember that in the three C's or stress hardiness attitudes, the first C is control. If we perceive that we are not in control in a particular situation, we are more likely to fall prey to the devastating effects of stress. Well, the fact is that whether or not you get angry or stay angry is really always your choice. Being able to recognize this gives you control. It is not the event out there that causes you to flare; it is your interpretation of the situation that ultimately leads you to be angry—or not angry. We know that this might initially be difficult to accept, but the fact is that human beings give meaning to everything. And that meaning leads you to blowing your top, so to speak. The difficulty in recognizing this is that we are typically unconscious of the interpretation or meaning we give a particular situation, as it lies outside our awareness and occurs almost instantaneously.

The fact that we have choice as to whether we feel anger, or any feeling for that matter, is the reason why two people can be faced with the same situation yet respond in ways that are diametrically opposed. For instance, imagine that you are driving in your car and someone cuts you off, almost causing an accident. The common response is to react with immediate anger and to grumble or even scream at the inconsiderate son-of-a-gun who dared to intrude on your sacred vehicular space. You tell yourself, or him, what an idiot he is, perhaps questioning how he ever obtained a driver's license or commenting on his dubious parentage. The incident may even become an indictment of all the drivers in your city, none of whom are as skilled as you. Meanwhile you are stewing in your own juices and continuing to aggravate yourself. You are well on the way to experiencing road rage.

Can you see how the meaning you gave this situation led to your angry response? Is it possible that another meaning that also explains the other driver's behavior could lead to a different response? What if, instead of assuming incompetence or inconsideration on the part of the other driver, you said to yourself, “Poor guy, he must have a lot on his mind. I wonder what is going wrong for him?” Undoubtedly, were you to ask yourself these questions, your response to the same event would be quite different. Once again we are reminded of Stephen Covey's motto: “The way you see the problem is the problem.” Not surprisingly, the solution invariably lies in changing the way you view the situation.

Anger and the Type A Personality

But you might be sitting there saying, “Why should I change? I have a right to be angry!” You are correct. You do have a right to be angry—but are you happy with the results? Persistent or frequent anger has serious deleterious effects on your emotional and physical well-being, as well as on your ability to be effective. There is no doubt that anger and resentment damage your health. A convincing example of this comes from what we have learned about the Type A personality. In the 1970s, cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman (1974) noticed that their patients tended to share certain personality characteristics. They called this cluster of behavioral traits the Type A personality. Type A individuals tend to be very hard-driving, achievement-oriented, compulsive, overly concerned with time pressure, and easy to anger, as compared to Type B individuals, who are laid back, easygoing, and less concerned with time. A strong relationship was discovered between the Type A orientation and cardiac problems. But later research revealed that the only aspect of Type A behavior that was really related to heart disease was the hostility component. That is, one could be hard-driving and compulsive without incurring a greater risk of heart disease if hostility was not present. Take out a moment to fill out the Hostility Scale to help determine whether anger and hostility are a problem for you.

Hostility Scale

Instructions: Answer each question true or false.

____________ I often get annoyed at checkout cashiers or the people in front of me when I'm waiting in line at the supermarket or other stores.
____________ I usually keep an eye on the people I work or live with to make sure they're doing what they should.
____________ I often wonder how extremely fat people can have so little respect for themselves.
____________ Most people will take advantage of you if you let them.
____________ The habits of friends or family members often annoy me.
____________ When I'm stuck in traffic, I often start breathing faster and my heart pounds.
____________ When I'm annoyed with people, I always let them know about it.
____________ If someone wrongs me, I'll get even.
____________ I usually try to have the last word in an argument.
____________ At least once a week, I feel like yelling or even hitting someone.

Scoring

If you answered true to five or more of these questions, you may qualify as excessively hostile.


The fact that anger is a risk factor for heart attacks is well documented. Anger sets off a physiological mechanism that makes your heart beat faster, your blood pressure rise, your coronary arteries constrict, and your blood get stickier. A recent study of more than one thousand patients at Mount Zion (Illinois) Medical Center who had survived heart attacks found that those who had counseling to reduce their anger, aggression, and hostility had half the rate of recurring heart attacks of those who received no such help dealing with anger.

Likewise, it is known that persistent anger is linked to ulcers and other psychosomatic conditions. Similarly, psychotherapists often find that anger is the flip side of depression. That is to say, often depression results from unresolved anger that is turned inward toward the self. Nor does anger fare much better in relationships. Ultimately, the art of nurturing relationships depends on your ability to establish trust. It is about building bridges between yourself and others. When angry, you draw sides, which keeps others on their side of the conflict. You enter into interactions with the goal of “getting your way.” Even if you are successful in achieving your ends, if you “win,” so to speak, the relationship often ends up losing. So if your long-term goal is a happy and satisfying relationship, anger typically won't get you what you want.

But is anger always bad for you? Actually, the answer is no. Anger is a normal human reaction. It becomes problematic when it is chronic, persistent, and unresolved. In fact, there are instances when anger can be useful. Anger can be helpful for mobilizing your energy so that you can take appropriate action. If you were never able to get angry, you might become so complacent that you would never seek to resolve issues in your life.

The task is not to always prevent anger, but to learn how to move through it efficiently and effectively. A former mentor of ours, Jacqueline Small, teaches that “the only way out is through.” You need to be aware of your anger and, rather than getting mired in it, recognize it as a signal that something is amiss and must be addressed. Then you can use the energy it creates to mobilize you to take appropriate action.

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