Getting fed up with anger

Psychiatrist explores what triggers hostility in science of feelings book

July 28, 2002|By Jane E. Brody | Jane E. Brody,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - The driver slowed down as she approached a fork in the highway, unsure of which branch to take.

The driver behind her was on her tail, so impatient that he tried to pass her on the right just as she headed for the right fork, forcing him to slam on his brakes.

He became so infuriated that he pulled right in front of her car. Each time she moved, he repeatedly slammed on his brakes, forcing her to brake suddenly again and again, endangering not only her but himself and other drivers.

Dr. Norman Rosenthal, a psychiatrist in the Washington area and an expert on depression and anger, says drivers who repeatedly try to pressure other cars to move faster or get out of the way, "always vigilant and tense, angry because they want to get someplace quicker and think that they can somehow clear the highway."

"These people live on a razor's edge," he said.

It is hard to say whether rage is now more common than it used to be, or if people are simply now more aware of it.

"People with short fuses are often very self-righteous and unsympathetic about the effect of their anger on other people," said Rosenthal, author of a new book on the science of feelings, The Emotional Revolution (Citadel Press, $25).

What annoys you?

The first step in reducing hostile tendencies is to recognize the distorted thoughts and beliefs that give rise to angry outbursts.

Are you cynical? Do you think most people have hostile motivations? Do you often experience feelings of hostility, getting irritated or angry easily, often getting into arguments?

"Different triggers provoke different people," Rosenthal wrote. "Bad traffic, slow waiters, an insensitive boss, an incompetent employee or an inattentive spouse are all common provocations for angry people."

He added common misperceptions often fuel anger. Some people, especially those who are depressed, see hostility where it does not exist. They believe - incorrectly - that others feel hostile or critical toward them and tend to defend themselves, in the process actually provoking hostility and a vicious cycle of anger.

Others operate from a misperception that the world should be other than it is and become enraged when beset by the ordinary hassles and inconveniences of everyday life - an airport delay, a traffic jam, a person who breaks a line.

Sometimes chemical influences - including excessive caffeine, steroids, diet drugs and antidepressants - foster irritability. If medications may be contributing to your anger, discuss this possibility with your physician.

Turn the other cheek

When small children act up, parents these days are likely to give them a "timeout." Likewise, people prone to anger need time to calm down and collect their thoughts.

Sometimes, Rosenthal said, this literally means turning the other cheek - "physically moving away from the person who is provoking the anger."

Only with time and distance may it be possible to respond appropriately, with wit, diplomacy, or proper assertiveness.

"Sometimes the cause of the anger may need to be addressed; at other times it might be better left alone," Rosenthal said.

Just because you fail to respond immediately to a provocation does not mean you are "giving in" and allowing the person to offend you.

You will be much more effective at changing offensive behavior if you wait until you can discuss things calmly and rationally. Keep in mind that even if your anger is fully justified, blowing your top can still cost you; you may lose your job, your spouse or your health.

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