Psychiatrists: Rage Comes From Accumulation

"My wife and I can be riding in the same car, and I'm sitting there going bonkers [over a traffic incident] and she's sitting there thinking what a nice opportunity we have to talk," Williams says.

If you tend to overreact while driving a car, he adds, perhaps you are a bit more hostile than you think you are. Maybe underneath it all, you're seething a good part of the time, and it has little to do with the jerk that just cut you off.

That's significant because uncontrolled anger can double your risk of having a stroke, according to a recent study by the University of Michigan School of Medicine. Researchers looked at 2,110 middle-aged men and found that those who were better at diffusing their anger had half the number of strokes over a seven-year period as those who were constantly "blowing off steam," according to psychologist Susan A. Everson.

"Losing your cool can be very hazardous to your health," she says.

Another study found that "hostility reduction training" among patients who had suffered a heart attack lowered their blood pressure almost as effectively as drugs.

Taking Control

Of course, none of this means anger is always bad. Sometimes, anger is a signal that we need to do something about a situation.

"If people in the past had not acted on their anger, black people in this country would still be riding in the back of the bus," Williams says.

So the key is not to eliminate anger, but to manage it. Williams and his wife, Virginia, have a counseling program in Durham, N.C., working chiefly with companies and governmental agencies, to help people take control of their anger. The first thing to do when conflict arises is make sure you've got your facts straight, Williams says. Once you know what's going on, he says, ask yourself four questions.

1) Is this important to me?

2) Are the thoughts and feelings I'm having appropriate to the facts?

3) Is this situation modifiable? In other words, is there anything I can do about it?

4) Would it be worth it to do what I have to do to change the situation?

"If you get a no to any one of those questions, you need to change your angry reaction rather than change the situation," Williams says. But if you get a yes to each question, you need to take some action.

"That doesn't mean blowing up or screaming or hollering or cutting somebody else off," he adds. What it means, he says, is "engaging in problem solving behavior."

If you can remember those four questions, Williams says, it will help you get a grip on your anger. At the very least, you will have time to cool off while you're asking them.

So maybe that advice generally attributed to "mom" is right after all.

If you feel yourself getting angry, count to 10.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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