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Anger can be either bad or good. It is a powerful force some find difficult to control and can be so frightening that some manage to deny and repress it, but at a huge cost to their health.

There are different schools of thought on what causes anger. Some believe anger is a defense mechanism sometimes used by our psyches to cover up "softer" emotions, such as fear, guilt, powerlessness and feelings of being unloved or unimportant. Such emotions can unconsciously be seen as a threat. These may be converted to anger and directed at someone or something external, thus shoring up the bruised ego.

Another idea is simply that anger is the result of unmet expectations. Have you ever been promised something (like a raise), only to be told later you are not going to receive it after all? Anger quickly results.

Whatever the cause of anger, it can produce profound changes in our bodies. Anger triggers our "fight or flight" response, sending a flood of hormones to all body parts. These help release extra sugar into the blood from the liver, increase blood pressure to force blood to the muscles, increase heart rate and reduce blood for digestion. These changes and more are intended to enable the body to meet an immediate physical challenge. Our prehistoric ancestors needed this response to ward off attacks by sabertooth tigers and such. However, these changes do not help someone stuck in a traffic jam.

Not only is this fight or flight response not useful, it can cause serious harm. This is especially true for people who tend to be hostile and quick to anger. Several recent studies link anger to heart disease. University of Pittsburgh researchers found hostile people have two to three times the risk of heart disease.

Another finding from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Mich., showed denial of anger is the strongest predictor of future cardiac events. This trait surpassed hypertension and lack of exercise. Even psoriasis can be triggered by repressed anger.

Many feel they can't help getting angry. Well, they're right -- sort of. Anger cannot simply be switched off. The goal should be to control what to do with anger. The old trick of counting to ten when getting angry is actually good advice. One thing that seems to happen to the body during the fight or flight response is the reasoning part of the brain becomes less effective. Taking time to count may help in making better decisions about using anger energy.

Another adage, "Never go to bed mad," is more good counsel. If anger isn't resolved, destructive repressed anger results. This destructive baggage can cause physical problems, not to mention damage to a marital relationship.

It is helpful to understand the source of anger. Was there some unmet expectation? If so, can the expectation be changed? Let's say you get angry when there is road construction and your drive home takes 30 minutes instead of the usual 20. It doesn't make sense to get angry about this every day for the duration of the construction project. Change expectations (or your route home).

If you're angry and can't identify any unmet expectation, maybe you are unwittingly substituting anger for some other emotion. This situation can be more difficult to resolve. Women usually have an advantage over men in this area. Women, in general, are more comfortable with these emotions than men. In fact, women are more likely to reveal their softer emotions and not subconsciously make the substitution in the first place. If they do fall into this trap, chances are they have a female confidante who will be able to identify the real issues and have no trouble telling her friend what these are.

Men tend to avoid softer emotions, especially negative ones such as grief or powerlessness. These may not be assimilated into a man's "macho" persona. Instead, repression of anger is much more common. To make matters worse, men usually have trouble communicating feelings. They tend to be uncomfortable talking about negative feelings or allowing others to make observations about personal issues.

There is a reverse side to this male-female issue. Anger is not always negative. It can give people a huge amount of energy to meet challenges (the fight or flight response). Men react in situations justifying anger with appropriate anger and become more assertive. Women have often been taught to act less assertively. As a result, women who have good reason to be angry convert anger into negative feelings about themselves. When this happens, they aren't able to use all the energy that comes with the anger. It can linger as repressed anger and cause physical symptoms. This may be why many more women are diagnosed with depression.

In the final analysis, anger can be considered to be neither positive nor negative. It is simply a part of life. What we do with the anger is what makes it positive or negative. We are taught at an early age how to handle anger -- right or wrong.

You may or may not be satisfied with the way you handle anger. If you feel you need help understanding this sometimes troublesome emotion and would like to learn different strategies for coping with it, Baptist Health Counseling can help. Call us at (502) 896-7105  or toll-free at 1-800-467-8138 for more information and to learn about the many types of services we offer which can help you address this issue.