Guest Blog by Joan Cook, Ph.D.
It’s hard not to feel all the anger spilling out at presidential election campaign rallies, particularly from the fans of Donald Trump. As a psychologist who’s spent a lot of her professional life working with combat veterans, I’m very comfortable with intense trauma-related anger. But the causes and effects of sustained anger among voters are less clear to me.
Anger is a normal, healthy emotion. It becomes problematic when it is experienced too frequently, too intensely or is expressed inappropriately (sciencedirect.com/science/book/9781483199689).
Trauma-exposed adults with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) have substantially high rates of destructive anger, with the largest effects in those who experienced combat (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16881777).
Violence-exposed adolescents, political prisoners, and veterans with PTSD can be highly irritable, critical, blow up at small annoyances, have impulses to harm others, and sometimes quietly seethe, bottling before blowing (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18157891).
For these men and women, minor hassles can become major injustices – like when someone accidentally cuts them off in traffic and their anger skyrockets sending them chasing after the offender, riding close to the bumper, flashing lights, honking horns, shaking fists, and cursing.
Due to the bad things that have happened to them, trauma survivors with PTSD often see the world as dangerous and unfair. Chronic and excessive anger impairs their processing of information, causing them to perceive threats when there are none and exhibit a lower threshold for responding with hostility (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23015585).
Some military scholars have noted how anger is needed for survival in the war-zone (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16001596). In order for our men and women in the military to do their jobs well and to protect themselves and others, they must develop angry responses to threat. While this defense is adaptive during combat, it’s not as necessary at home.
But where does this extreme bitterness come from among voters? Some say it is due to uncertainty and insecurity from pressing domestic issues and severe troubles abroad — income inequality, Wall Street, ISIS. Even given these major stressors, how is it in Americans’ best interests to gear up with anger armor and go into battle every day?
Anger can become addictive and some of my traumatized patients are drawn to it like a moth to light – to release tension, gain a sense of control. It can also be energizing and a powerful tool for helping one to get what they want. If one of my patients doesn’t want to go to family outing or to see a movie or take on more household responsibilities, he can get angry (whether this is conscious or unconscious) and the family demands decrease.
The veterans with PTSD that I work with already know that, in the long run, chronic anger has more disadvantages than not. Sustained intense anger has negative consequences for physical health (increased risk for heart attacks, coronary heart disease and high blood pressure; ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17893381), social relationships (increase discord in marriages and parent-child interactions; ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17195970), risk-taking behaviors (erratic driving, increased accidents), and property destruction (punching a wall). However, voters don’t seem to realize the adverse costs of chronic anger.
Old school anger management techniques involving venting don’t work. Hitting pillows, yelling at rallies or verbal kicking the scapegoat like refugees or Muslims, escalate rather defuse anger. I’m not advising people to stuff their angry feelings. That doesn’t work either and likely comes out in some other unhelpful way like sarcasm or depression.
The good news is that psychotherapies are generally effective at reducing maladaptive anger problems for diverse groups such as combat veterans, inmates, domestic batterers, aggressive drivers (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20018996).
We assign people anger self-awareness exercises — to describe their usual style of showing or coping with anger and think about how their anger impacts them and others. We ask people to fill out anger logs in session or for homework to help understand their anger triggers (what happened that really ticked them off?), anger levels (how ticked were they?), physiological signs (headaches, clenched fists, heart racing) and accompanying angry thoughts and behaviors.
Mental health professionals then teach their angry patients to recognize these patterns so they can best prepare for and regulate destructive anger when it arises — be it through relaxation, guided imagery, challenging unhelpful thinking, taking a time out.
Anger often serves as a cover or shield for more tender feelings like disappointment, sadness, fear, powerlessness. What are voters’ aroused state of antagonism covering up and what can they do about it? And how do we encourage voters to assess their anger and learn more adaptive ways of dealing with it? Rather than blaming others for all our problems, we can start by taking mature responsibility for our anger and what’s underlying it.
Joan Cook, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at Yale University and the 2016 President of the American Psychological Association’s Division of Trauma Psychology. As an Op-Ed Public Voices Fellow, she has recently published several op-eds in the Pacific Standard and in Time Ideas. She recently joined Twitter (@DrJoanCook) and is considering starting a blog.
Thanks so much to Dr. Cook for her article!
Here’s a question: What are your thoughts about anger among voters today? Please leave a comment. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!