Cool Off Hot Tempers

You've had a long day, and you're in a hurry to get home. Traffic is crawling, and you have to stop for groceries. After waiting forever in the checkout line, it's your turn—and the cash register goes on the blink. That does it. You're ready to lose it. 

Millions of us lose our tempers every day. Rude behavior and rage have increased at home and in public. Time constraints, congestion, unrealistic expectations, and people's sense that the world owes them something all fuel anger. It's not just unpleasant, it's downright unhealthy; studies have linked anger to heart disease.

But when you control your emotions and respond to others' emotions the right way, you can avoid or defuse anger, and enjoy life more.

Why do you get angry? Is it really because you stubbed your toe? More likely, you're frustrated with your job or struggling with marital problems. "Often, your anger toward the littlest thing is really about something deeper," says motivational speaker C. Leslie Charles, author of Why is Everyone So Cranky?

Unrealistic expectations, whether about Prince Charming or a faster computer, can send you fuming in a world that constantly bombards you with advertisements for the perfect life, available now.

Anger of the moment

Momentary anger can be justified or not. The child who dashes into traffic to retrieve a ball may rile you for good reason. But what about that busy store clerk who fails to greet you? Because of their high expectations, more people feel a sense of entitlement for attention, time, money, or things, Charles says.

Lack of time also can anger you. A long commute takes you to a job where you're overworked and constantly interrupted. With so little time and too much to do, you fall victim to "hurry sickness." In rushing from one task or place to another, people become impatient at anything and anyone that slows them down.

"Often, what stresses us out aren't major crises, but the little things that build up day after day," adds Charles.

You also may be prone to anger because of a difficult childhood or a physical problem. "Some evidence indicates that aggression can be socially and biologically related," says Edward C. Suarez, PhD, a North Carolina psychiatrist.

How does anger harm your health? Insomnia, headaches, and digestive problems are common. Flaring tempers also release stress hormones that raise your blood pressure and heart rate. Over time, too many stress hormones "can raise your cholesterol, thereby clogging arteries and possibly leading to a heart attack," says Dr. Suarez.

So don't let anger rule your life. "Angry behavior is a choice," Charles says. "Learn how to manage your choices, and you can manage your anger, or avoid it altogether."

A tempered response

Here's what to do when you're fuming:

  • Relax. Take deep breaths to calm down.

  • Keep your perspective. Is it worth getting so upset? Will your anger speed up that slow salesclerk? Give her a break; she may be new.

  • Lower the volume. Soften your voice and speak more slowly to reduce your emotional level.

  • Let go. Apologize for your anger. Once the incident has passed, move on.

  • Work it off. When anger surges, channel that energy into exercise as quickly as possible.

When you find yourself with someone who's angry:

  • Don't join in. You're a separate individual.

  • Calm down. Don't react angrily and escalate the problem. Venting anger usually won't help.

  • Show compassion. Feel for that person who obviously is suffering.

  • Listen. Let the person vent, but if he's abusive, leave.

Here's how to avoid anger altogether:

  • Track your triggers. Find common threads in angering situations to learn what sets you off.

  • Consider your life. Identify what you can and cannot change, then take action.

  • Get healthy. Moderate exercise can release tension. A nutritious diet with limited sugar and caffeine can help keep you on an even keel.

  • Be prepared. Recognize, in advance, the situations likely to cause anger, and plan alternative responses. If possible, avoid such situations.

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