Women and Anger: To Vent or Not to Vent Isn't the Question


To women who were taught that it is unladylike to express anger, the presumably therapeutic yelling and cursing of the current let-it-all-hang-out generation is often shocking. But now a major new study has strongly suggested that both the old style of keeping anger in and the newer tendency to release it explosively are equally poor ways of expressing this fundamental human emotion.

Both responses can catch women in a vicious cycle of low self-esteem and depression and can worsen anger because the issues that provoke it are never resolved, the study findings indicate. Far more effective, the researchers found, is to calm anger through physical or mental activities and to discuss angry feelings, preferably with the person who touched them off.

The study involved 14 researchers and 535 women from 25 to 66 years old, most of them white married mothers who work full time outside the home. The women, who chose to participate, were recruited from work sites, educational settings and community groups.

Each participant completed a battery of questionnaires that explored her overall tendency to become angry, how she expressed her anger and what she thought about and did when angry. Other factors examined were strength of self-esteem and social supports, symptoms of depression, general health status and healthfulness of living habits. The research was supported by the University of Tennessee. Study Counters Old Beliefs.

The Anger Workbook for Women: How to Keep Your Anger from Undermining Your Self-Esteem, Your Emotional Balance, and Your Relationships

The study, the first large-scale detailed look at anger in the lives of average middle-class American women, puts the lie to many long-standing beliefs about the role of this emotion in women's lives.

The organizer of the study, Dr. Sandra P. Thomas, director of the Center for Nursing Research at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, explained in an interview that most notions about women and anger were based on studies of women in therapy, and not the average woman who is coping with everyday incidents.

Women in therapy, who can be assumed to be troubled, are more likely to represent the extremes of anger suppression or uncontrolled hostility. Among the myths the study overturns are the notions that many women do not know when they are angry and that most suppress anger for fear of disrupting intimate relationships.

Dr. Thomas, a psychiatric nurse with extensive clinical as well as research experience, believes women would be far healthier, both physically and emotionally, if their anger served the useful role that evolution intended for all human emotions. In the case of anger, that role is to serve as a warning that certain acts or words threaten the person's well-being and may need to be adjusted.

But first, she said, it is necessary to identify the triggers of women's anger and the styles they now use for coping with it. To date, a vast majority of studies of anger have involved men, particularly in relation to their susceptibility to heart attacks. Men who are quick to anger and who become anxious or irritated over every little thing, an aspect of so-called Type A behavior, are more likely to suffer heart attacks than their calmer counterparts. Link to Poor Health

In the Thomas study of women, those who were reported to be in poor health had "a greater overall propensity for anger" and also tended to express their anger through bodily symptoms like severe headaches or shakiness.

The findings of the project are discussed in a newly published book for professionals, "Women and Anger" (Springer Publishing Company), edited by Dr. Thomas. Dr. Thomas presented the findings to the annual meeting of the American Nurses Association's Council of Nurse Researchers last month in Washington.

Dr. Thomas suggested that many of the health problems that disproportionately affect women, including depression, headaches, obesity and autoimmune diseases, might partly be a result of their unhealthy reactions to anger. It is as if anger were a squeezed balloon; if it does not come out in one way, it will in another.

But while a tendency to keep anger to oneself was strongest among the oldest participants in the study, on the whole little evidence was found to support the prevailing belief that women are likely to suppress their angry feelings. "Only a small percentage of our subjects failed to fill out the 'typical anger experience' page of our questionnaire," Dr. Thomas wrote. "Women do know when they are angry. They told us about it."

The Anger Workbook for Women: How to Keep Your Anger from Undermining Your Self-Esteem, Your Emotional Balance, and Your Relationships

The study showed that typical triggers of anger in women concerned issues of power, justice and responsibility, said Gayle Denham and Kaye Bultemeier, who are doctoral students in nursing at the University of Tennessee. Women got angry when they could not meet their own expectations, when they could not change frustrating circumstances at work, when family members, friends or co-workers failed to live up to expectations or when they believed they were treated unfairly or disrespectfully.

Although some of the older participants in the study may have learned to suppress their anger as young women, Dr. Thomas suggested, others may have learned through the years to be less quick to anger. "Many women mellow with age," she said. "They begin to see that what provoked them as younger women is not worth wasting energy on." Harmful Venting of Emotions

Indeed, the researchers found strong evidence that a tendency to vent anger by "yelling, screaming and lashing out" was even more harmful than keeping it in. Dr. Margaret T. Saylor, a professor of nursing at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, said in an interview: "Venting anger tends to provoke pejorative labels like bitch and shrew that undermine a woman's self-esteem. Venting anger also disrupts the relationships that are very important to women. To enhance self-esteem people need to feel lovable and competent, and venting anger does neither of these."

Dr. Saylor said the research strongly indicated that women with low self-esteem were more likely to be easily provoked and to express their anger in a volatile way. Such women tend to regard innocent acts and words as personal affronts, further undermining self-esteem.

The women in the study who were easily angered and who expressed their anger in an attacking, blaming way were also more likely to be depressed, and those who were more depressed were more likely to experience physical symptoms when angry.

Another counterproductive response to anger common to many women in the study was a tendency to ruminate about the precipitating event, construing it as unfair and deliberately provoking. Dr. Thomas said rumination only worsened angry feelings and was associated with problems like high blood pressure.

On the other hand, she said: "Women with high self-esteem had many fewer anger symptoms and were much less likely to brood about the events that provoke anger. They also had less of a propensity to become angry or to keep anger in or to vent it." High Self-Esteem

Rather than suppressing anger or volatilely expressing it, women with high self-esteem tended to discuss their anger in a problem-solving way, either with a confidante or with the person who provoked it, or both.

"The woman with high self-esteem does not have to busy herself with protecting a fragile sense of self, but can identify the salient aspects of the anger-producing situation and approach it from a problem-solving stance," Dr. Saylor and Ms. Denham wrote.

But in the study group as a whole, only 9 percent of the women said they would directly confront the person who touched off their anger.

Those who tried to suppress their anger also suffered from low self-esteem because they allowed themselves to be treated as doormats or punching bags. Occasionally, after prolonged suppression, their anger would erupt in a way that was out of proportion to the triggering event, making them feel guilty and worthless, further lowering self-esteem.

Dr. Thomas said the suppression of anger was usually counterproductive, since "unless the anger is expressed, the offending party has no opportunity to make needed changes in behavior." Thus, the anger-provoking behavior is likely to be repeated until an explosion results when the angry person cannot take it any longer.


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