January 5, 2013

Figuring Out Whether Your Anger Is Toxic

I coined the term toxic anger to convey the fact that certain subtypes of anger can be poisonous, even lethal. Other forms of anger are benign (nontoxic) and really cannot hurt you in any appreciable way. The trick is to know which is which.

Annoyances count

In one study where 50 college students were asked to keep a weekly diary of how often they got annoyed or angry, they recorded 1,536 instances of emotion. The average student reported getting angry seven times a week, roughly once a day. However, the average student also reported feeling annoyed 24 times a week or approximately 3 times a day. In other words, their report of anger was four times greater when they included milder forms of emotions like annoyance.

Anger is just a word — a fairly meaningless concept — until you break it down into something that can be quantified.

At least once a day Chronic irritation Chronic anger Chronic rage. Which category did you fall into? Does it make the problem more real when you put these types of labels on it? I find that most people are comfortable with terms like irritated and angry, but they don’t like the label rage at all.

Episodic anger

Slightly more than a third (36 percent) of those sampled acknowledged the fact that they got angry a couple of times a week.  This is our first glimpse at what I call toxic anger. Approximately 15 percent of the sample readily admitted to getting this angry on occasion, although not daily. I like to refer to these individuals as sleeping lions or occasional hotheads — they’re fine until they get aroused, and then watch out!

Chronic irritation

You may think that chronic irritation is a problem, but it’s really not all that toxic. People may see you as moody or bitchy, but they still tolerate you most of the time. Interestingly, only about 2 percent of people fall in this category — thank goodness.

Chronic anger

This is the second category of toxic anger. It included 11 percent of those surveyed, people like Nathan, a retired salesman who finds himself getting angry repeatedly every day about one thing or another. “I get mad when my wife takes too long shopping, when things break around the house, when gas prices go up — just about anything that doesn't suit me,” he says. “But don’t get me wrong — I don’t go off the deep end and rant and rave.” Like many people, he thinks he doesn't have a problem with anger because it never rises to the level of uncontrollable rage — but he’s wrong. It’s just not healthy to be angry as frequently as he is.

Chronic rage

This is our worst-case example of toxic anger. I’m sorry to say that 12 percent of those responding fell into this subgroup. If you find yourself in this group, your anger is volatile (as in volcano!) and there’s absolutely no question that anger is poisoning just about every aspect of your life. This type of anger is dangerous and serves no useful purpose.

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