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10 Ways to Control Your Fiery Temper

10 Ways to Control Your Fiery Temper

Annie Tucker Morgan | DivineCaroline

January 12, 2011

I’ll be the first to admit that when I’m behind the wheel of my car, I become a terrible person—a cursing, mad-dogging, dangerous-driving version of myself.

The same is true of my public-transportation persona—my evil twin (or, alternately, my inner crybaby) always rears her ugly head when she’s forced to endure train delays or body-to-body buses, and then she spends the first thirty minutes of her workday ranting and raving about every grisly detail when she arrives at her office. Surely, such boundless rage and unfettered self-expression can’t be healthy—or can they? When it comes to anger, is it better to express it or suppress it?

Cry Me a River
During the 1970s, the period that gave birth to the self-awareness movement, people were encouraged to indulge in extreme forms of self-expression—such as primal-scream therapy—to shake off the shackles of the repressive 1950s and ’60s. Beginning in the ’80s, however, psychiatrists began to take the opposite tack, questioning the efficacy of this completely unrestrained emotional purging. Social psychologist Carol Tavris, for one, wrote in her book Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion, “Talking out an emotion doesn’t reduce it, it rehearses it. People who are most prone to give vent to their rage get angrier, not less angry.”

A New York Times article called “Venting Anger May Do More Harm Than Good” cited Tavris’s “hundreds of research references to support her views,” including a study of third-graders, some of whom Tavris asked to express their frustration with other children who had angered them, and others of whom she asked to refrain from doing so. Even at that young age, the students who were permitted to vent sabotaged their emotional well-being in the process: once they articulated their negative feelings, they liked the objects of their frustration even less than the children who were asked to remain mum.

Further supporting this notion is the fact that anger isn’t just an emotional state; it’s associated with a variety of unpleasant physiological symptoms as well. When a person becomes angry, his or her body secretes epinephrine and norepinephrine, which are the same hormones that stressful situations produce. This hormonal surge also results in a rapid spike in blood sugar, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and constriction of the blood vessels leading to the digestive tract.

An even more grim possibility is that individuals who experience frequent feelings of hostility are significantly more likely to develop heart disease. For instance, Dr. Redford Williams, a Duke University Medical Center psychiatrist, conducted a long-term study (detailed in his 1994 book, Anger Kills) that tracked the physical health of 255 physicians to whom he’d administered a basic personality test twenty-five years earlier. During that time span, Williams noted, the participants whose test scores had placed them in the top half of the hostility scale had had five to six times more heart attacks than the test takers who scored in the bottom half of the same scale.

Still, this doesn’t mean bottling up your feelings entirely is healthy, either; an important distinction to keep in mind is that consciously suppressing anger differs greatly from unintentional repression thereof. Behavioral experts largely agree that the latter is a toxic state linked to headaches, chronic depression or anxiety, and, according to the American Psychological Association, “pathological expressions of anger, such as passive-aggressive behavior (getting back at people indirectly, without telling them why, rather than confronting them head-on) or a personality that seems perpetually cynical and hostile.” The ideal approach is to first acknowledge anger, and then manage it in a way that prevents it from festering, thereby harming others or oneself in the process.

Next: How to Control It →

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