Many people consider excessive anger to be just a psychological problem. That is a gross simplification. When we become angry, the autonomic nervous system is aroused. For example, anger precipitated by the discovery of a spouse’s secret affair will likely lead to arousal of the sympathetic nervous system and associated hormonal and neurochemical changes. These physiological reactions can lead to increases in cardiovascular responding, in respiration and perspiration, in blood flow to active muscles and in strength. As the anger persists, it will affect many of the body’s systems, such as the cardiovascular, immune, digestive and central nervous systems. This will lead to increased risks of hypertension and stroke, heart disease, gastric ulcers, and bowel diseases, as well as slower wound healing and a possible increased risk of some types of cancers.

Research has found that anger is an independent risk factor for heart disease. Having a tendency to experience anger frequently, in many types of situations, is known as high trait anger. One study followed 12,986 adults for approximately three years and found a two to three times increased risk of coronary events in people with normal blood pressure but with high trait anger. Another study followed 4,083 adults for 10 to 15 years. Those who were lowest on anger control had the highest risk of fatal and non-fatal cardiovascular events. After reviewing the literature, experts have concluded that high trait anger, chronic hostility, anger expression, and acute anger episodes can lead to new and recurrent cardiovascular disease. When anger is experienced moderately and expressed assertively it may be less disruptive than when it is frequent, intense, and enduring.

What has psychological research revealed about why some people are more prone to anger than others?

Proneness to anger has to be examined with regard to thoughts, physiological reactions, and physical activity. With regard to the physiological reactions, some people are easily aroused and quickly respond to aversive stimuli. They rapidly become angered by bad smells, heat, and annoying noises. Others are slow to react and seem not bothered by such stimuli. Genetic variability plays a big part here.

Physical expressions of anger, such as sulking, banging the desk, or hitting the wall are learned by the forces of reinforcement and copying others.

Finally, some evidence suggests that violent video games and, perhaps, listening to angry music with violent lyrics may fuel anger and aggression in some people. In violent videogames, players hear quick-paced, excitatory angry music. They learn to be hyper alert, to respond impulsively and to kill opponents. This leads to reinforcement in the form of points, acquisition of new weapons, access to upper levels of the games, and accolades by others in the gaming environment. 

What are some of the steps that people can take when dealing with anger among family members or friends?  How would they differ from dealing with a stranger—such as a store clerk, taxi driver, or other service person?

Anger felt when dealing with strangers emerges from transient interactions. You may never see the clerk or driver or waiter again. If you ask yourself how important the annoying situation really is, you usually come up with, “not very important at all.” At most, you have suffered from paying a bit too much for the taxi ride or being delayed a few minutes by the clerk. Recognize that these are unpleasant events, not catastrophes, and work around them. Go to a different restaurant or go to the store at off hours to return a purchase.

Also, recognize the difference between events that you can change and those that are beyond you. When you take a cab ride, tell the driver about your preferred route. When you order that steak in the restaurant, ask for extra ketchup before the waiter leaves the table never to be seen again. You have less control over other events. Airplanes, for various reasons, are frequently late. There is little you can do. Accept the delay as an opportunity to read or relax, not disastrous or worthy of anger.

Anger felt when dealing with family members or friends is different because of the ongoing interactions. To address this kind of anger, the self-help strategies that are quickest and easiest to use are avoidance and escape, relaxation, cognitive restructuring, and assertive expression. 

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