Anger: Myths and Management

Open a newspaper, click on daytime TV or board a big city subway, and you'll see that there are plenty of angry people around. Fortunately, there's lots of advice about what to do about anger. But what's true and what's myth?

Years ago, New Yorker Wendy Galfund responded to a "20/20" posting seeking people with anger problems. We followed Galfund with our cameras and learned that life for her is a constant struggle against … life.

At the supermarket, Galfund was furious because she couldn't find her shopping list. Then the fruit wasn't good enough. Then, of course, the checkout lines were full. While everyone else just waited patiently, Galfund pestered the store to open more registers, unsuccessfully.

At the post office, facing another big line, Galfund again fought the system, but she failed there too. And crossing Big Apple streets, she shouted at cars who failed to give her the right of way.

Did she know that her shouting wasn't doing any good?

"I have to still tell somebody how I feel," she said, "even if I'm alone, and even if they can't hear me."

Venting and Vitality

Like many people "20/20" talked to, Galfund believed that venting her anger was healthy, and that holding in anger can cause illnesses like ulcers, colitis, even cancer. And that's the first widespread myth about anger: "Venting your anger is healthy."

Mind-body researcher Dr. Redford Williams, in the department of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center, said that venting your anger is, in fact, quite unhealthy. With his wife, Virginia, Williams has written two books on anger management: "Anger Kills: Seventeen Strategies for Controlling the Hostility That Can Harm Your Health" and "In Control: No More Snapping at Your Family, Sulking at Work, Steaming in the Grocery Line, Seething in Meetings, Stuffing Your Frustration."

When you vent your anger, "your blood pressure's going up more, your adrenaline levels are going up more. You're nicking those arteries a little bit more," Williams said.

"When you are getting angry, things are happening inside your body that are taking hours, days, years off your life," he explained. "The research is unequivocal in this. It shows that people who get angry a lot, every day, are more likely to die by age 50."

But whom does that scary scenario affect more, men or women? Who's angrier? "20/20" asked some New Yorkers what they thought.

Men Let It Out, Women Keep It In?

"Women are actually meaner and madder than men are!" one person observed. Another man acknowledged that his wife is far angrier than he is, and one woman admitted that women are "a little more sneaky about our anger." But the conventional wisdom still says that there's a gender gap when it comes to anger. What does Williams think about the second anger myth: "Men are angrier than women"?

"It's true," he said. "Men are angrier than women. Lots of research shows that when we do surveys measuring chronic anger, men score higher on those surveys. … But men and women deal with their anger differently."

"Men are more likely to vent, and to let it out. Women are more likely to stuff, and keep it in," Williams explained. "Both are bad. If you always vent, you're venting and exploding, lots of times, when what you should be doing is chilling out, because there's nothing you can do about the traffic jam. If you're always stuffing it, you're stuffing it a fair amount of the time when there's something you should be doing to get that jerk to quit calling you stupid for wanting to go see the latest Julia Roberts movie this weekend."

The Angriest Age

Speaking of movies, there are plenty of big screen depictions of cranky seniors, like "Grumpy Old Men" and the sequel "Grumpier Old Men," starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon as irritable curmudgeons. That's the third anger myth: "The older you get, the more angry you are."

But it's a myth, said Williams. "The data show that the angriest people are 14-year-old boys."

"As you go from 14 to 22 or so, it levels off and stays low, through adulthood," he said. "As you get into middle age, in the 50s and 60s, it starts to go up again, but it never gets to the level it was when you were 14."

Williams said that as the years add up, "What else goes up is wisdom and experience. And you do begin to be able to let things go as you get older."

Does that theory apply to Wendy Galfund, the scourge of the supermarkets? Fifteen years ago, "20/20" introduced her to Williams, who counseled her on anger management techniques. Today Galfund lives with her family in a small New Jersey suburb and said that Williams' ideas, like carrying a book to read while waiting in lines, helped her.

"If I'm waiting on lines it becomes more pleasant," she said. "I've done that since I moved out of the city. I have a little book all the time with me. … I still can get crazy, but it does help."

"People learning these anger management skills are able to reduce their anger, and reduce their blood pressure," Williams said. He suggests techniques like meditation, deep breathing, even singing a song to yourself as ways to defuse anger. But when faced with a stressful situation, there is a simple trick to keep in mind.

"Before you do anything, just say 'Stop!' Put a stop sign out in front of your face, and say, 'OK, wait a second, is this one of those times when I need to do something about this? Or change my reaction … to chill out.'"

"If you don't do anything but that, you'll stop before you explode or stuff it," he said. "And you'll be better off."

At Dr. Redford Williams' Web site, www.williamslifeskills.com, you can take an online test to see if you can benefit from his LifeSkills training for anger management.

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