AAre you a hothead under pressure or do you tend to be cool as a cucumber no matter what happens? How we manage anger is a critical factor in predicting our long-term physical health. Studies suggest that suppressed rage and frequent angry outbursts are associated with:

1. Higher mortality rates
2. Elevated risks of certain cancers
3. High blood pressure
4. Cardiovascular disease

Anger can have its advantages. It can clarify objectives, give voice to deep fears, and propel us to safety — but it takes a big toll on health and happiness, as well as the people we love most. The key to reaping the full benefit of anger is to understand its biological and emotional roots, and then make the necessary changes to put you — not your rage — back in control.

The fight in “fight or flight” — the physiology of anger

You’ve heard of “fight or flight,” the instinctual response to danger that evolved to ensure our survival as a species. This either/or option for action is still poised to take over even when the “danger” isn’t a real life-or-death situation. Anger makes us ready to fight while fear drives us to flee, but both urges are primal emotional reflexes — not moods.

The fight-or-light mechanism starts in your brain where two almond-shaped structures, called the amygdala, are responsible for recognizing potential danger and sounding the alarm. If a threat is perceived, the central nervous system responds by opening up the physiological floodgates, often before your brain thinks it through. Then, the “executive” part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) becomes aware of what is happening.

In order for you to grow angry, neurotransmitters inside your brain, called catecholamines, are released. These give you a jolt of energy and clarity that lasts five to ten minutes. Your heart pounds, your blood pressure shoots up, and your extremities are juiced with extra blood flow. As your reactions ramp up in a rush of adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol, you enter a temporarily altered state of consciousness, ready to engage. At this stage, some people stop thinking or rationalizing altogether, which is why it can be so hard to recall after the fact what you said or did when you were really angry.

This physiological anger mechanism is the same in all humans. What differs between us is each individual’s capacity to govern this instinct. This ability depends on a spectrum of factors — physiological, biographical and emotional —and includes learned, gender-related behavior.

illustration with laurel thatcher ulrich quote well-behaved women seldom make history

The angry woman — gender and anger

There is still a well-established double standard when it comes to anger, and it splits directly along traditional gender lines. Men get more leeway when it comes to anger, perhaps because they have traditionally been viewed as world protectors, controllers and enforcers.

What are you angry about? If you are mad about a political or social development — rather than at your spouse, kids or co-workers — your anger can be useful. Historically, “angry women” have been and continue to be branded troublemakers. But they have used their anger to fight injustice, intolerance, lack of representation, inequality and more. In this context, anger in women is being used constructively.

But internal anger in your personal life can be very destructive both physically and emotionally. Biologically the “male” hormone testosterone has been associated with aggression and irritability at both low and high levels. However, it isn’t clear which comes first. Do people who are more prone to anger generate more testosterone, or does poor regulation of testosterone trigger their anger?

Men are far more likely to strike out at another person or object in anger, while women are more prone to express anger indirectly or turn it on themselves. The same health risks associated with anger-prone individuals — increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, hypertension, and social isolation — affect both men and women equally.

silhouette of woman with hands in air on a rock

Repressing or stifling angry feelings doesn’t make the fury go away — in fact, the opposite is true. The same physiological response occurs, with all the accompanying risks, whether or not you become actively angry. The more you try to bury anger, the more likely it is to emerge as anxiety, depression, irritability, resentment, chronic pain, and addictive or self-destructive behavior.

So when is it healthy and positive for you to express anger? Anger can be useful when expressed at the right time and in the right place, but not when it’s in response to, or fueled by, shame, guilt or resentment.

Common roots of anger in women

Even though anger is a primitive reflex, its biggest triggers are actually learned behavior. If you were raised by an angry or explosive parent, or had to deal with one who had substance abuse issues, your brain may have a predisposition to become angry. Similarly, you may also carry the legacy of a parent who was passive-aggressive, controlling, or tended to suppress anger.

Traumatic events, such as experiencing or witnessing physical or emotional abuse, can also result in suppressed anger and rage that may not surface for years. Children often model the behavior of their parents and caregivers, and may grow up to pass that behavior on.

salmon and vegetable shish kabob

Your day-to-day activities can also significantly affect how easily you go to anger. Simply being very hungry can catapult anyone towards anger. This is one reason why we recommend three balanced meals and two snacks each day to help keep emotions stable. For that and a million other reasons, don’t skip meals!

The quality of your food matters: eat balanced meals that include lean proteins, healthy fats, and plenty of fresh, non-starchy vegetables. Balanced meals are more likely to have a low glycemic load. By helping maintain steady insulin and serotonin levels throughout the day, foods with a low glycemic index encourage a calmer state, and stick with you longer.

Even as adults, we are more vulnerable to temper tantrums when consuming high glycemic index foods like simple sugars — at least when under stress. Both depression and anger can be influenced by hormonal imbalance — a big reason why these often arise as symptoms during perimenopause and menopause.

Hormones and anger in perimenopause

Sudden mood swings and irritability are two of the most common symptoms of hormonal fluctuation, during pregnancy, PMS, perimenopause or menopause. Anger can signal the body to develop pro-inflammatory molecules. Estrogen has some anti-inflammatory qualities while progesterone has an overall calming effect. As progesterone-to-estrogen ratios become erratic during the perimenopausal transition, many women experience extreme anger, snappiness and fits of rage often for the first time.

woman with a surprised face

A surprising number of women have their first real experiences with anger during perimenopause and menopause — and they are often scared by how venomous their reactions can be. Shifting hormones present a challenge to the flexibility of the endocrine system, especially at menopause. Similar to PMS, when hormone fluctuations often lead us to vent our “true” feelings, menopause lifts the curtain to reveal who is really directing the show. For many women, it’s anger and often, it’s very deep-seated. For this reason, restoring hormonal balance and supporting adrenal function help many women feel more in control of their emotions.

Anger is the emotion that helps you stand your ground and fight for what is rightfully yours. Is there a better time than midlife to make that stand? Not really, though it can be hard to channel your anger in constructive ways.

Let it out — harness the power of anger

Being angry all the time drains your power because people will just tune you out. In order to access your anger and express it in a positive way, you can break the habit of anger and train yourself to think before you act. This helps you tap the momentum of your anger to serve your needs. First, rule out any physiological underpinnings to your anger, so you can focus on the emotion itself. Then explore ways to release your anger, put it to good use or diffuse it altogether and move forward.

A few ideas for taking anger out of the driver’s seat:

  • Encourage hormonal and serotonin balance with optimal nutrition. Include a daily multivitamin/mineral complex rich in calcium, magnesium and key ingredients that you can’t easily get from food, along with a quality omega-3 fatty acid supplement. Limit processed foods and simple sugars, and eat enough healthy, essential fats like extra-virgin olive oil or coconut oil.
  • Protect your nerves. Cut back on or quit stimulants like caffeine and nicotine because these heavily tax the nervous system. And again, get adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, and EPA that help insulate and protect your nerves.
  • Make a “mad diary” to track your anger patterns. Note when you become irritable (At certain times of the month? After eating specific foods? Under certain circumstances?) Learning to spot these patterns can help retrain your reactions, and give the “thinking” part of your brain time to work. This is why counting to ten before you react really works!
  • Manage the moment. When anger flares, try deep breathing, meditation, or physically removing yourself from the source of conflict. Once you’ve made it through the eruption, take some time to clear your head and let your body and brain return to normal.
  • woman running down a trail
  • Release anger through physical activity. We feel much calmer and lighter emotionally after a good workout but there are other tricks to try. Turn up the radio in the car if you’re alone, and scream or sing your head off. Pound it out with a plastic baseball bat on a pillow. Even the sheer hard work of gardening can clear anger away.
  • Channel anger into creativity. A soothing activity that feeds your soul is very healing. Allow your true colors to come out with cooking, painting, crafting, singing or dancing — freedom of self-expression can help you let go of your anger and turn to something more fun and productive.
  • Ask for help. Anger is a complicated emotion, one that may have been building up inside you for years. If you are having trouble deciphering your feelings or identifying your anger patterns on your own, consider EFT or talking to a therapist to help you unravel your anger. Knowing your true feelings is crucial if you are going to develop tools for coping with them.

Put anger in its place

We don’t think you should feel guilty just because you got mad. The problem comes with misplaced or sustained anger because it damages your health and upsets your emotional equilibrium. These simple steps can help you put anger in its rightful place. That way you can make your temperament work for you — not the other way around.

References

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2 Binks, G. 2005. Treating anger in men. CBS News Viewpoint. URL: http://www.cbc.ca/news/viewpoint/vp_binks/20050311.html (accessed 09.10.2007).

3 Tangney, J. 1992. Shamed into anger? The relation of shame and guilt to anger and self-reported aggression. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol., 62 (4), 669–675. URL (abstract): http://content.apa.org/journals/psp/62/4/669 (accessed 09.10.2007).

4 McCann, B, et al. 1987. Gender differences in the relationship between hostility and the type A behavior pattern. J. Pers. Assess., 51 (3), 355–366.

   Masson, A. 2004. [Girls are more successful than boys at the university. Gender group differences in models integrating motivational and aggressive components correlated with Test-Anxiety] Article in French. Encephale, 30 (1), 1–15. URL (abstract): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?Db=PubMed&Cmd=ShowDetailView&
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5 Brody, J. 1996. Personal health: Hostility and heart disease. New York Times. URL: http://www.nytimes.com/specials/women/warchive/961120_1264.html (accessed 09.11.2007).

6 Garland, M., & Hallahan, B. 2006. Essential fatty acids and their role in conditions characterised by impulsivity. Int. Rev. Psychiatry, 18 (2), 99–105. URL (abstract): http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6WPH-
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   Hibbeln, J., et al. 2006. Omega-3 fatty acid deficiencies in neurodevelopment, aggression and autonomic dysregulation: Opportunities for intervention. Int. Rev. Psychiatry, 18 (2), 107–118.

7 Kaptchuk, T. 1983. The Web that Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine, p. 60. NY: Contemporary Books.

8 Benton, D. 2007. The impact of diet on anti-social, violent and criminal behaviour. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev., 31 (5), 752–774. URL (abstract): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?db=pubmed&list_uids=17433442
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9 Hays, B., 2005. Chapter 19. Hormonal imbalances: Female hormones: The dance of the hormones. Pt. I. In http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0977371301 Textbook of Functional Medicine, ed. D. Jones & S. Quinn, 229. Gig Harbor, WA: Institute for Functional Medicine.

10 Lee, J. et al. 1999. PMS and the Stress Connection. NY: Warner Books. URL: http://www.johnleemd.com/store/pms_stress.html (accessed 11.03.2006).

Further reading

Pert, C. 1999.The Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind–Body Medicine. NY: Simon & Schuster.

Truman, K. 1991. Feelings Buried Alive Never Die. Brigham City, UT: Brigham Distributing.