Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 September 2019

When a red mist descends: how the age of rage could be killing you

Learning to manage our anger is the key to wellbeing in the modern era

Smash rooms, like this one in Beijing, China, are becoming increasingly popular as a way to get emotions out of your system. Wu Hong / EPA
Smash rooms, like this one in Beijing, China, are becoming increasingly popular as a way to get emotions out of your system. Wu Hong / EPA

En route to the supermarket, I signal that I'm about to change lane. Immediately, the car behind speeds up to block my manoeuvre and I am filled with instant rage, not just aimed at this particular driver but at all SUVs, the world over. Once at the supermarket, when I ask where the coffee is and a shelf-stacker points vaguely in a northwesterly direction, I can feel my irritation rise again.

My anger, in such situations, typically results in nothing more than a passing moment of red mist. Last week in Paris, however, a customer became so infuriated at having to wait to be served his sandwich that he shot dead the waiter. It begs the question: are we becoming angrier and less tolerant as a society?

Pollsters Gallup looked at positive and negative daily experiences, based on more than 151,000 interviews with adults in more than 140 countries, and concluded in this year’s Global Emotions report that anger is at an all-time high.

In an age of social media, where we are often physically disconnected from those we communicate with, trolling and cyber-abuse have become commonplace. It is far easier to be aggressive with someone when you do not have to face them and can hide behind the cloak of anonymity.

According to professor David Andress, the author of Cultural Dementia, societies are “violent and hierarchical places”. He told the Guardian we have merely managed to “persuade people to take their foot off other people’s throats, when they felt secure enough”. Other experts say we are living in an age of rage, with politicians and world leaders feeling licensed to fire off volleys of abusive or offensive tweets, nationalism on the rise and increasing public disenchantment with the status quo.

To top it all, we are living in an era of instant gratification, where an unexpectedly slow internet connection or losing all the photos from a smartphone can send us spiralling into a rage.

Of all our emotions, anger has to be the hardest to conceal and the most dangerous. It is particularly damaging to our relationships. Most often depicted as red, the colour symbolises blood and danger; nature's own warning card.

We are hard-wired to feel anger and detect its presence in others, often reciprocating with anger ourselves. But we can also feel morally outraged by a positive force that moves us to respond to perceived injustice and to right wrongs. Anger can compel us to act when we see atrocities committed around the world, witness war and human suffering, or the devastation being wreaked on our planet.

Some people have what psychologists call a broad scope of provocation: in other words, they are easily annoyed and almost anything can trigger their irritation. The length of time our anger lasts can also be problematic. Some of us find it hard to let go of the emotion, constantly overthinking the original transgression and prodding the embers of our rage. None of this is good for our health.

For the past 15 years, the World Health Organisation has identified heart disease and stroke as the leading causes of death globally, accounting for about 15 million deaths each year. Anger is linked to both.

We are living in an age of rage, with politicians and world leaders feeling licensed to fire off volleys of abusive or offensive tweets, nationalism on the rise and increasing public disenchantment with the status quo

Numerous studies have found that frequently expressing anger – anger proneness – is associated with a higher risk of heart disease and stroke. One study, led by epidemiologist Janice Williams at the University of North Carolina, followed 13,000 people over six years. At the start of the study, participants completed tests assessing their tendency to become angry. At the follow-up, those with the highest levels of anger proneness were three times more likely to have experienced a heart attack, compared to their less easily irritated compatriots. This effect was maintained even when other risk factors such as weight and smoking were taken into consideration.

Besides our health, anger can be a trigger for violent or illegal acts and wreck relationships. But why are so many people feeling so angry? Could it be that the complex nature of our social world presents more opportunities for us to have our buttons pushed? Or perhaps we now perceive more wrongs and threats of injustice?

Whatever the forces driving the rise in anger, learning to manage this emotion is a key to wellbeing in the modern age. Managing anger does not mean that we roll over and tolerate all personal violations and injustices. Instead, it is about reducing the tendency to react automatically. Anger will always arise, but cultivating the capacity to respond once the emotion has passed can be particularly helpful. Once the red mist has cleared, we can react with a clearer mind. Mindfulness programmes teach these type of skills. However, managing anger is an idea that has been valued across many cultures and through the ages.

The earliest surviving complete work devoted to anger is by the stoic philosopher Seneca, who saw it as the most self-destructive of all vices, reflective of our inability to reconcile ourselves with the inevitable frustrations of existence. The remedy, he wrote, lay in modifying our beliefs about the world and how it should be. This is a practice that contemporary psychotherapists call “cognitive restructuring”. In this, the Year of Tolerance, it is worth remembering that the next time another driver cuts you off: anger, however all-consuming, is fleeting.

Dr Justin Thomas is a psychology professor at Zayed University

Updated: August 25, 2019 08:30 PM

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