It’s an angry time, all right, with political polarization at record levels, cable news and social media monetizing outrage, and the pandemic, unemployment and fury over racial injustice heating the toxic emotional stew. Mental health experts worry about rising domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse, warning that Americans urgently need better tools to calm emotional storms.
Abundant research supports the adage that holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. Study after study links simmering aggression with heart disease — the No. 1 killer of Americans before the pandemic. One found a tripled risk of a stroke during the two hours following an angry outburst.
Chronic anger may also weaken the immune system, while repeated and lengthy bouts of anger or sadness can increase inflammation, raising risks of illnesses such as arthritis. In one finding, Harvard scientists found that men with the highest hostility levels had worse lung capacity, with more chance of respiratory disease.
The uptick in outrage is bipartisan — as is its potential for harm: the looting, vandalism and assaults on police, and the tear-gassing and pepper-spraying of peaceful protesters.
In Brentwood, Tenn., chaplain and former police detective Robert Michaels hopes police can find better tools to deal with the trauma, frustration and anger that often come with the job.
As chief executive of the nonprofit “Serve & Protect,” he’s calling on departments to offer more in-house support to help officers heal the emotional wounds that can undermine their training in conflict de-escalation.
“We need to pay more attention to officers’ emotional wellness, and the shame and stigma that get in the way of their getting the help they need,” Michaels says.
Emotions are rarely simple and neither are their effects, says Stanford University psychologist James Gross, a leading authority in the relatively young science of emotional regulation.
He and other mental health experts stressed that much of today’s angry zeitgeist isn’t irrational. Anger can also be energizing — author Toni Morrison called it “a lovely surging.” That’s one reason it’s so important in mobilizing for social justice. “It would be a shame to try to make that kind of anger go away,” Gross said.
At the Harvard Kennedy School, psychologist Jennifer Lerner has found that anger can be a healthier response to unfairness than fear or despair. By studying people’s facial expressions at times of high stress over perceived injustice, Lerner showed that people who got indignant instead of afraid were less likely to suffer high levels of blood pressure and stress hormones.
In the hierarchy of harmful emotions, seething anger is worse than occasional outrage, while a general sense of powerlessness may be the worst of the three. Amid worries that people are feeling more angry and helpless than ever during the pandemic lockdowns, Gross and Lerner recently joined several colleagues in an extraordinary new study, supported by the Psychological Science Accelerator, which fast-tracks high-quality and helpful behavioral research. The effort began last month with a survey of the state of the emotional health of more than 25,000 people in 55 countries.
After analyzing the results, researchers plan to test two leading strategies to cope with potentially harmful emotions, going beyond “the homegrown remedies like telling people to count to ten or go for a walk,” Gross says. Both involve the strategy of “reappraisal” — rethinking the thoughts that rile us up.
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