It's A Mad, Mad, Mad Men's World*

By Benedict Carey

After more than a decade in hiding, smoky men’s club fun is back. Between Macanudo cigars and martinis, rare scotch and rare beef, long lunches and steakhouse dinners, a little naughtiness is in again – even for healthy people. To paraphrase Chesterton: Happier the man who eats caviar on impulse than the one who eats leafy greens on principle.

But what about the one who gets angry on impulse? The person, often male, who has strong opinions, suffers fools ungladly, hates incompetence and sometimes throws and old-fashioned, meat-and-potatoes Type A tantrum. Life’s not always a beach. Surely it’s OK to lay it all out and vent once in a while.

“That’s certainly what I thought,” says Hank Landau, 42, a biotech executive in Los Angeles. “I mean, anger has clarity and certainty. It’s not ambivalent, it’s not on the fence. Right or wrong, I thought, at least it provides some movement.”

Only the movement, he began to see, was in circles. Landau’s temper left him so frantic and helpless that he sought counseling. He now helps lead retreats at the Men’s Center of Los Angeles, where he learned his own coping skills, and talks about anger in the same language that research psychologists do: as a self-destructive habit, like drug abuse, which can burn through a person’s life before treatment is given a chance.

For if there’s anything recent research makes clear, it is that anger cannot be vented. On the contrary, letting off steam almost always leaves a person more steamed. In a series of experiments, Aron Siegman, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, compared blood pressure and heart rate readings in young, healthy students as they reenacted episodes of anger.

“Simply experiencing the anger, thinking about it, doesn’t elevate heart rate much at all,” he says. “Nor does talking about the incident in a slow, calm voice.”

But once people begin talking fast and loud about infuriating scenes, their blood pressure jumped an average of 20 points.

“In some it went way up, by as much as 100 points,” Siegman says. “Now, if that person were a heart disease patient seeing a cardiologist, the doctor would tell me to call an ambulance.”

Revving a healthy heart in this way, and keeping it on high idle, can over decades also end in an ambulance ride, doctors believe. Every angry outburst releases hormones that tighten arteries and hike blood pressure. In time, artery walls wear out in the same way that squeezing and pumping will wear out the inside of a garden hose. Worn artery walls, most doctors say, are prone to the scarring and fatty buildup that presage heart disease.

That’s why emotional strain – anger, stress, hostility – are considered at least as powerful a risk factor for heart disease as diet or family history.

“In my view, it is anger expression,” says Siegman, “that is the single most important emotional factor.”

Even beating on a pillow in the privacy of your room isn’t harmless. In a pair of experiments at Iowa State University, people who took out their anger on a punching bag only became more aggressive. They were twice as likely as angry subjects who didn’t hit the bag to lash out at rivals during a competitive computer game.

“They were trying to get some release, but it wouldn’t come,” says Brad Bushman, the psychologist who conducted the study. “You’re better off doing nothing at all, just sitting there, being angry. The idea that punching a pillow or a bag gives some cathartic release is, it seems to me, an excuse for people to lose control of themselves.”

Anger is the one emotion that wants a fight, of course, and through the ages it’s the only one that has given us the nerve and extra strength to heave intruders from our cave. It is not only a state of mind – it’s a state of physical agitation. And as early as 1896 Charles Darwin speculated that the agitation informed the emotion itself: that what we do tells us how we feel. As psychologist and philosopher William James put it later, “We don’t run because we’re scared; we’re scared because we run.”

On first hearing an insult, says Siegman, we feel an organic, almost subconscious sting. But it is the tight chest, the surprised, wide eyes, the blood warming behind our temples that tell us we’re really offended.

“These responses aren’t secondary to the emotion; they are the emotion,” he says. “Each dimension escalates the others. Your blood pressure goes up, making your voice louder, which then makes your pressure go up higher. And so on.”

Thus do small idiocies – phone answering menus, changing area codes, faulty ATMs – create large fury. And so can petty, I’m-not-doing-these-dishes arguments sour close relationships and strain marriages. Thoughtless outbursts on the basketball court or over cards – and especially at work – can wither not only our friendships but also our prospects, our business, our livelihood.

“Between 75% and 80% of anger-rousing events are interpersonal,” says Colorado State university psychologist Jerry Deffenbacher, who has made a career of studying and testing anger-management programs, “so it’s your spouse, your kids and your coworkers who are getting it.”

Deffenbacher says that no counseling program is powerful enough to erase all anger or to touch deeper fantasies of rage. According to news reports, for example, Columbine High School killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold passed an anger management course with glowing comments from their teachers. Nonetheless, he says, several strategies have proved effective for most people who genuinely want to lengthen their fuse:

Relaxation. Thomas Jefferson’s advice – “when angry, count to 10; when really angry, count to 100” – is still good, as long as the counting is meditative, soothing and not a countdown to liftoff. Deep breathing is worth trying, too, because it can slow heart rate and ease blood pressure. Walk away from hot spots (if possible), calm yourself, think about baseball, think about love, think about God, think about anything to preclude the emotional-physical chain reaction Siegman describes.

Cognitive restructuring. This is psycho-jargon for, “Get over yourself.” Amplify the inner voice of reason, see the bigger picture, talk yourself down. Yes, people are often inconsiderate, incompetent, indifferent or worse. Go figure. That’s all the more reason to practice patience yourself, to answer levitation with levity.

“Many of the people I see mistake desire for necessity,” says Paul Hauck, a psychologist in Rock Island, Illinois, who has treated incontinent anger for 45 years. They demand sex, they demand attention, they demand that no one cut them off in their cars. Well, look, don’t tell me no one should hit your car. That’s nonsense. Why can’t someone hit your car?… Once you stop making all these demands on reality, the anger dissolves.”

Communication. “Sometimes we simply tell people to write [but not send] a letter,” says Stephen Johnson, founder of the Men’s Center of Los Angeles and Landau’s counselor. “Putting it on paper can be a very good way to figure out why you’re so upset and what to do about it.” Talking about what’s so infuriating in a calm, easy voice – as Siegman suggests – also can expose impulsive anger as silly and allow sane expression of the principled kind.

“If it is a serious matter, then bring the person aside and tell them straight, tell them quietly, exactly why you are upset,” Hauck says.

“You can be very, very tough as a quiet man.”


Some useful Web sites:

  • Mental Health Net
  • Self Improvement Online
  • American Psychological Association
  • Partnerships Against Violence Network