Blowing Your Top

Men get angry more than women? Don’t bottle up your anger? Myths like these can ruin a man’s life.

By Joan Tupponce

steamoutofears_shutter_optIt’s going to happen. One day someone is going to do something – cut you off in traffic, maybe, or talk over you in a meeting, ignore what you have to say – and you’re going to get angry. And that’s OK … as long as your anger is not a daily occurrence.

“Anger tells you that something is bothering you,” said Henrico-based psychologist John Lynch, author of “When Anger Scares You.”

Anger is a biological response to the feeling that you have been wronged in some way. It prompts a fight-or-flight reaction that is part of our survival mechanism. “It is supposed to give you energy to run or fight,” Lynch said. “You can only feel angry when you feel threatened. We get angry for a reason. It is simply a messenger.”

Men seldom have a problem expressing their anger. And that can be due in part to upbringing as well as films, television programs and video games that glorify men who don’t back down from a fight. But if you think men are more prone to anger than women, think again.

“It’s a myth that men have more anger issues than women,” said Dr. Martin Buxton, medical director and chief of psychiatry at Chippenham Hospital and the medical director of the Family Counseling Center for Recovery in the West End. “The problem is that men are more comfortable with anger than they are their softer emotions like sadness, hurt or vulnerability.”

Women don’t mind talking about how they feel and why they feel the way they do. Men, on the other hand, are more apt to react first and think later. “Men tend to express their conflicted feelings in behavioral terms rather than mood,” Lynch said. “Men’s vocabulary of feelings is not as developed as women’s.”

For instance, a father may yell at his teenager if he feels the teen is being disrespectful. The anger he feels is tied to the fact that his confidence as a parent and/or his self-esteem is being threatened by the teen’s actions. “You have to recognize what makes you feel angry and how you are going to deal with it,” Lynch said.

Growing up, young boys model men’s behavior. Men, by society’s standards, are supposed to be strong, not weak. “It’s not manly if you came home crying and said someone hurt your feelings,” said Buxton. “It’s unmanly to cry if you get hurt in a game. It’s learned and media [television, film and video games] reinforces it.”

Anger also can stem from different fears such as the fear of rejection or the fear of losing someone. “With men sadness or grief turns into anger because it’s easier for them to express anger than it is to deal with sadness,” said Dr. John Benesek of Commonwealth Counseling, which has offices in Chesterfield and Henrico.

When it comes to what makes men angry, Lynch said there are three basic themes that are primary threats to the development of masculinity. Those themes are the feeling of being controlled instead of being in control, abandonment (a relationship falling apart or the end of a marriage, for example) and the fear inadequacy or incompetency. “When you find situations triggered by any of these three themes, men will have an immediate response,” he said.

If it is a constant behavior, anger can lead to health problems, everything from hypertension and stroke to heart disease and ulcers. “Explosive anger can increase your risk for cardiovascular complications,” said Dr. Ruth Latham, who lives in Henrico and works at Memorial Medical Center. “It can increase your risk for stroke and sudden death.”

Anger becomes a concern if it is an all-the-time event or if it becomes aggressive either verbally or physically. “If someone cuts you off in traffic and you chase them down, that is extreme,” Benesek said.

Men are not apt to seek help for their anger unless they realize they are out of control and want to change their behaviors. “They might say to themselves ‘I don’t like who I am when I am angry’,” Lynch said.

Instead of being reactive, men need to be aware of what is really making them feel angry. “When a guy can slow down and have impulse control he is more apt to act in constructive ways,” Lynch said, adding that men need to ask themselves, “What is it that is making me angry? Why is it making me angry and what do I want to do about it?”

Changing behaviors is never an easy task. “You have to resist your biological urges and replace them with a value driven system,” Lynch said. “You have to say I want to be calm and centered. I want to come from my values and not my temperament.”

Latham suggests considering activities that help reduce the tension that leads to anger such as meditation, tai chi or yoga. “You also can talk with a friend or family member and get your emotions out,” she said.

One of the easiest ways to calm an angry moment is to practice five-second breathing, taking a breath in and holding it for five seconds and then exhaling for five seconds.

“It slows you down and gives you a moment to think,” Lynch said.