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Anger: Why we’re all losing our cool


Britain is in the grip of an anger epidemic, with a quarter of the population now struggling to keep the lid on their feelings of rage and resentment. What's making us so cross? And what can we do about it? Virginia Ironside takes a deep breath...

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Anger is all around us. Yesterday, I witnessed two people involved in a road-rage episode so violent that one even went into his car's boot to produce a hammer. Luckily, both drivers calmed down and got back into their cars, hissing and spitting at each other as they drove off.

On television, Gordon Ramsay is allowed to let fly at the saddest of hopeless restaurateurs, calling them all kinds of horrible names; Big Brother thrives on confrontation; and all the soaps feature people having a go at each other. So it's small wonder that so many of us end up thinking that this is how we should lead our lives.

And when we see John Prescott, then the deputy prime minister, no less, actually punching someone in the face on television – and, which is what I find incredible, getting away with it – it's not surprising that most reasonably peace-loving folk find ourselves tut-tutting like old colonels wondering what the world is coming to.

It's perhaps not remarkable, then, that a study published this week by the Mental Health Foundation, called Boiling Point, warns that one in three of us has a friend or relative who can't control their temper, and that one in four of us is battling with an anger prob-lem. Anger is seen as the root cause of much criminal behaviour, and also of mental and physical health problems and family breakdown.

Back in the Fifties, emotions – and sex – were seen as really rather disgusting things, like going to the lavatory. No gentleman lost his temper in public, let alone cried, or expressed any deep feelings at all. Little boys were often punished for crying, and any evidence of rage in a little girl was swiftly curtailed by long periods alone in a room, or admonitions that she would go to Hell. In the end, most people were so buttoned-up that doctors started to wonder whether a stiff upper lip wasn't actually a health risk, and to question whether repression wasn't responsible for many of the things anger is blamed for these days.

Then came the Sixties. I remember "experts" telling us that if we didn't have several orgasms a night we'd quite probably die of cancer, and that if we didn't "let it all hang out" we'd expire, like a shrivelled apple at the back of a drawer, long before our time.

As skirts got shorter, so spontaneity came back into fashion. Crying was seen as admirable. Following your instincts, however base, was, if not admired, usually forgiven, and anger was seen as – that awful word – "healthy".

But the truth is that anger is very rarely "healthy". Surveys have consistently shown that the more angry you are, the more angry you are – in other words, if you let your inhibitions down too often, you wear them away, like sea walls, and before you know it you lose your defences against anger and find that, rather than controlling it, the emotion itself is controlling you.

Not that repressing it is altogether a good thing. The trick is to arrive at a happy mean. There is nothing wrong with feeling anger. It can be a useful emotion, and with anger usually goes a lot of energy, a real spark of life. But the problem comes when you start to express it. There is a world of difference between feeling furious, then calming down and expressing your views with an emphasis that shows the other person the force of your feelings, and feeling furious and simply lashing out with your fists right away.

It seems that a lot of angry behaviour just "pops out", according to the people who experience it. It's a very quick shift from feeling to action; one minute you're fine, the next you're lashing out like a tiger. I know. On the two occasions in my life when I've got really angry, the first time I bit someone on the cheek, and the second I smashed a glass over a friend's bare shoulder. Luckily, there have been no other incidents in my life, but these two were frightening – not only for other people, but also for myself.

At anger counselling courses, they teach that the trick is to be able to spot that moment between feeling and action and, corny as it sounds, count to 10. Consider the outcomes – not only to your friends and family, but to yourself. Many is the wife-beater who, afterwards, turns his face to the wall, blubbing like a baby, stricken with genuine remorse.

Why is there so much anger around these days? It's partly, as I've said, to do with fashions in emotions. And partly, I'm certain, because television portrays anger as an acceptable social emotion. But there are two other key factors.

One, I'm sure, is the feeling of powerlessness many people feel in their lives. We are hemmed in by regulation, CCTV cameras, health and safety laws. There are even things we're not allowed to say. We feel a kind of despair about our lives. When two million people march against a war and no one in government pays any attention, no wonder many of us feel: "What's the point?"

But powerlessness is a dangerous emotion. No one likes feeling that way. And it means that, to vent our anger, we get our revenge in small ways – shouting at a traffic warden, yelling down the phone, heckling at a meeting, berating strangers – or even attacking them – just for the way they look at us.

The other reason people feel angry is because of their pasts. If someone grows up with a strong sense of self-worth, a deep knowledge that they're loved and supported by their family, or even just one member of it, they won't get into a lather if some idiot cuts them up on the road. They'll just mutter "tsk-tsk". It's people whose self-respect hangs on a thread, or hangs solely on the views of others, who get upset at the tiniest slight, even if it's not intended.

And I can understand that, if you feel you barely exist, someone pinching your parking space must feel like the end of your entire world, as if you are being totally eliminated. Small wonder you lash out like wild animals whose very survival is threatened.

Obviously, we can't all live in a sea of love and flowers. We need anger to survive, and it's right that when we're truly threatened, we lash out furiously. It's right that, when a child puts its finger into an electric socket, we shout to discourage them from ever doing it again. It's right that, if someone we know deliberately does us real damage, we wish to punish them (short of physical violence, obviously). And anger, properly channelled, can drive people into marvellous acts of righteous revolution, putting wrongs to right, not to mention producing works of art and literature.

But anger is like an armoury. We can't keep guns unless we know how to use them. Similarly, we should not give our anger free rein unless we know how to increase and decrease the volume when it's needed and, in some cases, shut it up in a box for a while to cool down.

"Anger is a vital emotion, and essential to our survival, but it can become entrenched in everyday life for some people," says a spokesman for the Mental Health Foundation. "It interferes with their thinking, feeling and behaviour and creates misery for themselves and those around them."

Or, as Thomas Aquinas put it: "Anger is the name of a passion. A passion of the sensitive appetite is good in so far as it is regulated by reason, whereas it is evil if it set the order of reason aside."

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