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Toxic Anger Afflicts 20 Million Americans and Counting

People driving around with bumper stickers that read, “Aim higher boys, them rag heads is ridin’ camels,” may be conveying more than a warped sense of humor. They may be carrying around toxic anger.

“Anger is an emotion and as such it is time-limited. It comes and goes on a more or less frequent basis. So, we do not wear it on our shirtsleeves. What I think some Americans may wear outwardly are symbols of hostility, an attitude that conveys a feeling of ill-will towards others or hate (manifested as) extreme hostility,” said author and clinical psychologist W. Doyle Gentry.

Gentry, author of Anger-Free: Ten Basic Steps to Managing Your Anger, believes that more than 20 million Americans are harboring a toxic, unhealthy, maladaptive anger he calls Toxic Anger Syndrome (TAS).

When normal people experience anger too often, too intensely and for too long, they are on the road to personal and social destruction, Gentry contends.

“When anger goes awry it gets manifested as jealousy, bitterness or hostility and they may not even be aware of it,” Andrew Lester, author and professor of pastoral theology and pastoral counseling at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, told EthicsDaily.com.

“I agree that many chronically angry folks are unaware of their anger. I make a distinction between ‘people who get angry’ versus ‘angry people.’ The latter are people who are angry so often that it tends to distinguish them from all others around them,” Gentry said.

Gentry said holding on to anger “often leaves a residue of hostility that in turn can generate more anger. A vicious cycle can then develop.”

“Sometimes it is hard to determine if a person is angry or if the person is expressing some form of sick humor,” Lester said. “We read comic strips like the Lockhorns and laugh at violence and anger that occurs to the characters,” he said.

“Most anger is expressed indirectly and covertly rather than in some openly aggressive fashionIt’s that estimated 10% of anger (typically rage) that gets all the attention because it is displayed in some public, visible, intense manner,” Gentry said.

Lester agreed: “Subtle ways that people show anger might be in withdrawing from a person. They might start rumors. They might have a fight with their spouse and say that they have forgotten about it but it comes out by coming home late or other indirect ways.”

In his book, Gentry provides a self-test for toxic anger that both the individual and friends can take. However, the most valuable input may be to ask someone who knows you to take the test. “Feedback from others is a good way of becoming more aware of just how angry you are—problem is people hesitate to provide feedback because it might make you mad!”

Some people may be predisposed to being “hotheads.” Lester said, “We all have these emotions running around inside us all the time and they come out in a variety of ways. People have different levels of excitability. Just as some people are sensitive to light and noise, some are more excitable towards anger.”

Gentry, who conducts anger workshops across the continent, said the number of angry people is on the rise and that this increase is due to a feeling of entitlement.

“I do think people are getting angrier these days. There are many factors contributing to this. Not the least is the accelerating sense of ‘entitlement’ that Americans have about life, an attitude that goes along with the increasingly narcissistic nature of our culture,” Gentry said.

In February, New York City School officials noticed a higher level of anger among students than existed prior to Sept. 11. Schools began offering anger management and negotiation skills courses for students to deal with their anger.

Here is Gentry’s 10-step process:

1.       Intentionally change your behavior and have a reason why you need to stop being so angry.
2.       Surround yourself with a team of “anger allies” who can offer support.
3.       Reject the notion that “It’s all about me stupid.” Then realize that you can choose to have a non-toxic view of the world.
4.       Set aside time to relax and reflect free from stress.
5.       Be assertive without being aggressive. You have rights as a human being and you need to express your anger rather than holding it in.
6.       Stay away from stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine. Refrain from alcohol.
7.       Try to be more giving by becoming more empathetic with others.
8.       Get regular exercise to help release the anger. Better yet, get someone to exercise with you to help hold you accountable.
9.       Get medical attention if you are suffering from depression.
10.   Learn to cope without using anger and determine to become a role model at home, work and in the community.

Ray Furr is a Baptist minister and freelance writer in Poquoson, Va.