Anger: The Toxic Emotion

At the mall last week, I witnessed what is a far too common occurrence: a customer screaming at a worker. The rage in her voice was frightening. Reflecting over this incident while driving home, I noticed two drivers engaged in what appeared to be a "vehicle battle" - yelling at each other and riding each other's bumpers. By the time I pulled into my garage, I realized how angry society has become.

All of us experience the normal emotion called anger. Sometimes it arises from nowhere and other times it brews inside, becoming a "pressure cooker." Some vent, others resort to physical attacks, and still others suppress their anger.

Anger has three components: bodily reaction, thought, and behavior.

The body responds to anger by preparing itself for a fight - the heart pumps faster, blood pressure rises, and hormones are released throughout the body. This physiological response is a normal reaction to any stressor and helps us when in danger. Unfortunately, there is the downside, which I'll return to shortly.

Becoming angry just doesn't "happen." Its roots are found in our thought process. How we appraise (think) an event determines how we feel and behave. If you think a person cheated you out of money, the most obvious reaction is to become angry. If you think a person cheated you out of money, the most obvious reaction is to become angry.

Anger is expressed behaviorally. This varies from person to person. Acts of violence through acts of suppression are behavioral declarations of anger. How anger is expressed, therefore, determines its effect on all parties involved.

Although anger is a normal emotion, it's very misunderstood. We are taught that anger is an inappropriate emotion. Children often hear, "Don't you talk THAT way to me!" The message is that children are not expected - nor do they have the right - to become angry. Other mixed messages derive from the professional community - vent your anger; venting leads to violence; suppressed anger leads to heart disease, etc. We are unsure what to do with our anger.

Part of the confusion lies in semantics. An abundance of scientific research exists on the effects of anger. Recently, "hostility" (the overt expression of anger) has emerged as a major health "culprit." For me, "anger" and "hostility" express the same concept (hostility can also be a thought or an emotion). With that being said, the negative consequences of chronic anger are:

  • Anger is related to heart disease because it raises blood pressure and places undo stress upon the heart.
  • Research shows a relationship between anger and cancer.
  • Anger is associated with increased levels of violence (spousal, children, workplace, etc.).
  • Anger can undermine relationships.

How do we express anger in a healthy manner? Any display of violent behavior (physically and verbally) is totally unacceptable. Communicating with civility and respect is the ideal - and is easier said than done when we're angry. Anger distorts perceptions. The world is seen through red-hot sunglasses. It becomes difficult for an angry person to see things rationally. We often regret what we said and/or how we behaved in the "heat of the moment" because our brains are unable to function logically.

Suppression is another inappropriate way to deal with anger. Burying anger can lead to self-loathing, anxiety, and physical and emotional symptoms.

Trying to determine the healthiest way to deal with anger can be confusing. If suppression and physical outbursts represent opposite ends of a continuum, the ideal place is in the middle. I firmly believe that verbal communicating works best. This doesn't mean chronic fits of rage. Rather, it means explaining why you feel angry and how it can be overcome. Keep in mind that words can be as harmful as physical expression. Instead of suppressing anger, allow yourself the freedom to express what you feel. Anger is a by-product of life. Expressing it respectfully becomes a civilized choice.

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About The Author / Credits: Keith Levick, Ph.D., is a health psychologist who has been in practice for 20 years and is an Adjunct Professor at Central Michigan University. He is the founder and director of the Center for Childhood Weight Management, a unique treatment program designed for overweight children, located in Farmington Hills, MI, and in YMCA'S throughout Michigan. Dr. Levick is also the President of Goren and Associates, a training and development company. Some of their clients include GM, DaimlerChrysler, Detroit Diesel, AT&T and other Fortune 500 companies. Dr. Levick serves on the Executive Board for the American Heart Association and is well published in the area of health and wellness. Dr. Levick is author of a new book entitled, Why Is My Child So Overweight? A Parent's Guide to a Fit & Healthy Child, designed to help the entire family become more aware of eating behaviors and help create lifestyle changes. This book is available through

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