Giving A Name To Your Anger May Help You Tame It : Shots - Health News While many people believe that how we feel and express anger is hard-wired, some scientists suggest our experience and culture help shape it. One way to get a handle on it may be to personalize it.
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Got Anger? Try Naming It To Tame It

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Got Anger? Try Naming It To Tame It

Got Anger? Try Naming It To Tame It

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Suppose you have a stressful day. You get home. You walk in the door and hear this.


INSKEEP: As you listen to that...


INSKEEP: ...Do you start feeling just a little bit irritated - maybe even angry?


ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: (As Kimble, yelling) Shut up.

INSKEEP: That is Arnold Schwarzenegger expressing his anger in the film "Kindergarten Cop." Whether it's your home life or politics or Twitter, anger surrounds us. And over the next month, NPR will explore this emotion to learn from it. Today NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports on a method that could transform your relationship with anger.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: We're going to start with the infamous scowl, you know, where you scrunch up your eyes and your forehead when you're angry. The common theory is that no matter where you're born - San Francisco, India, Tanzania - you're born knowing how to make this expression.

LISA FELDMAN BARRETT: Everyone will scowl in anger most of the time, and they will also recognize a scowl as anger.

DOUCLEFF: That's Lisa Feldman Barrett. She's a psychologist at Northeastern University. She says for decades, many scientists thought anger was a universal emotion hard-wired in the brain. When something is unfair - say, somebody takes credit for your success at work - your body automatically launches the anger program.


FELDMAN BARRETT: Your blood pressure will go up.

DOUCLEFF: Your heart will start pounding.

FELDMAN BARRETT: Maybe you'll breathe heavily.


DOUCLEFF: Maybe you'll feel hot, and your face will turn red. Then a switch flips on in your brain and...


SCHWARZENEGGER: (As Kimble, yelling) Shut up.

DOUCLEFF: We all know what happens next. Feldman Barrett says there's no doubt this type of anger exists.

FELDMAN BARRETT: That's the sort of stereotype of what anger is.

DOUCLEFF: But it's not the full story.

FELDMAN BARRETT: There is no single bodily change in anger. What it feels like to be angry depends on the situation. So sometimes anger is very unpleasant, and sometimes it's very pleasant.

DOUCLEFF: So, for example, you can feel exuberant anger when you're getting ramped up to compete in sports or a sad anger when your spouse doesn't appreciate you. Maybe you even cry when you're angry.

FELDMAN BARRETT: Sometimes, if you're like me, you know, you'll sit and imagine the demise of your enemy. All right, so (laughter) - and very quietly, right? So that was a joke.

DOUCLEFF: Feldman Barrett says your body reacts differently depending on a few things - what's causing you to be angry, what your past experiences have shown you about that situation and how your culture has taught you to respond. As a result, there is enormous variation in the types of anger here in the U.S. and around the world. Remember that scowl we were talking about? That's probably not universal. For example, many people in India don't squint when they're angry but open their eyes very wide to give an intense glare.

FELDMAN BARRETT: There are many, many emotion categories that exist in other cultures that don't exist in English - in our culture.

DOUCLEFF: For instance, in Mandarin Chinese, there's a word specifically for anger directed towards yourself...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Mandarin).

DOUCLEFF: ...Which is like anger mixed with regret. And the ancient Greeks differentiated between a short-term anger that doesn't stick around...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Greek).

DOUCLEFF: ...With a long-term anger that's permanent.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Greek).

DOUCLEFF: And then there are the angers of India. Abhijeet Paul teaches South Asian literature at Middlebury College. He says Indians are really creative when it comes to anger.

ABHIJEET PAUL: There's a very common form of anger which means, like, when the eggplant meets the oil.

DOUCLEFF: When the eggplant, like, hits the hot oil in a pan?

PAUL: Yeah, like you suddenly become, like, really angry at hearing something shocking or learning about something that you really, really deeply dislike.

DOUCLEFF: So like when you read the news headlines or check Twitter and there's something almost outrageous, your eggplant may hit the hot oil. Paul says Indians also have another interesting type of anger, political anger...

PAUL: (Foreign language spoken).

DOUCLEFF: ...That you feel against the ruling class, the boss man. And you would never express that type of anger toward a neighbor or a family member.

PAUL: That is not good.

DOUCLEFF: Now here's the cool thing. Learning about all this - all these different types of anger is actually useful. Maria Gendron studies psychology at Yale University. She says giving names and labels to all your various angers can help you regulate them - not let them take over or overwhelm you. And it gives you clues about how best to respond.

MARIA GENDRON: There's definitely emerging evidence to show that even just the act of putting a label on your feelings is a really powerful tool for regulation.

DOUCLEFF: The idea is to take a state that's broad and general, like saying, I'm so angry, and making it more specific, more precise, nuanced. And you don't have to use the labels that already exist. You can just make up your own. Give your different types of anger names and start using them. Let me show you how it works.


DOUCLEFF: The screaming baby and barking dog you heard at the beginning of the story...


DOUCLEFF: Those belong to me. And when my husband comes home at night and hears that, it triggers a lot of anger. I decided to break it down and name it.


DOUCLEFF: The dog is barking.


DOUCLEFF: The toddler is screaming - two sounds together.


DOUCLEFF: We decided to call this new type of anger disonophous from the Latin for two sounds.


DOUCLEFF: Gendron says psychologists have a name for this strategy of precisely defining your emotions.

GENDRON: Emotional granularity.

DOUCLEFF: Studies show that the more emotional granularity you have, the more you can find subtle variations in your anger - the less likely you are to yell or act aggressively.

GENDRON: If you're making that a practice in your family - right? - of coming up with words and then using them together, that actually is kind of a mechanism - right? - that actually can regulate physiology, can resolve the kind of ambiguity about the situation.

DOUCLEFF: What emotional granularity does is it lets you see your anger with higher resolution, kind of like watching HDTV versus regular TV. Higher resolution gives you more information about your emotions.

GENDRON: What it means - whether we value that experience or not and give you choices - right? - about what to do next.

DOUCLEFF: And this last part is key. Being granular with your anger helps you figure out what's the best way to handle the situation. Here's what we did at my house.


DOUCLEFF: Now when my husband says, I have disonophous anger, Michaeleen - instead of me getting angry back, I know what we can do. Put the dog outside, pick up the baby and we all get some peace and quiet. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.



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