Anger: Why we’re all losing our cool

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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...

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."

The angry brigade
By Simon Usborne & Tim Walker

Ian Paisley

Anger will never be the same after the Reverend Ian Paisley retires his shouty mouth and bangy fist from the frontline of Northern Irish politics in May, when he will step down as First Minster and DUP leader. Gosh, he's had an angry career. The Pope made him angry, gays made him angry, Jerry Springer: The Opera made him angry, nationalists made him really angry. Once renowned for yelling "Never! Never! Never!" when discussing engagement with the peace process, Dr Paisley later modified his views to something like "Oh, alright then, if you insist". In recent years, however, he's mellowed like a softening old fruit, sharing hearty – and previously unthinkable – laughs with his Sinn Fein counterpart Martin McGuinness. What has come over him? Perhaps it's the title on his office door: "First Minister." And on McGuinness's door? "Deputy First Minister." TW
Simmering: 3
Shouting: 5
Fighting: 0

Heather Mills

Yes, Heather Mills is angry, and she wants us all to know it. After all, if you'd just been awarded close to £25m by the divorce courts, wouldn't you be angry? She seemed such a nice girl when she first came to public attention, as the victim of an accident that saw her lose a leg and inspired her to get involved in the charity work she so likes to remind us of. Then she married Paul McCartney. The press painted her as a gold-digger and she simmered quietly until the marriage hit the rocks, the soft-porn pictures hit the pages of The Sun, and Heather's frustration boiled over in one great pouty-mouthed paroxysm of rage. She gets two points for fighting for throwing a jug of water over her ex-husband's lawyer – a highbrow version of hitting a photographer. TW
Simmering: 4
Shouting: 5
Fighting: 2

Grace Jones

How anyone as innocuous as poor old Russell Harty could merit a slap across the face is a question only the supremely angry Grace Jones can answer. In 1981, she struck Harty live on air as he turned to speak to his other chat show guests. Harty was just doing his job, but that was enough to make Jones snap. Later, as the fiery May Day, in the James Bond film A View to a Kill, Jones' hard-edged hairdo and flared nostrils made her a formidable sparring partner for Roger Moore. In 2005, she verbally abused a member of staff on Eurostar – she must have missed the signs reminding her that attacks on railway staff do not go down well with the management. She was ejected from the train, though later claimed that she alighted of her own volition. TW
Simmering: 4
Shouting: 4
Fighting: 4

Richard Littlejohn

The angry man at the heart of one of our great nation's angriest newspaper operations, Richard Littlejohn has forged a career from righteous indignation. His column in the Daily Mail has given him a pulpit from which to pour scorn on political correctness, the EU, the Royal Family, compensation culture and the nanny state. He's no great fan of asylum-seekers, nor prostitutes. While the Suffolk strangler was on the rampage, Littlejohn described Steve Wright's victims as "no great loss". Littlejohn also has an ongoing spat with Johann Hari, of this parish, who takes issue with his column's frequent unflattering mentions of homosexual practices. Often accused of being a right-wing propagandist, he can, at least, argue that the BNP makes him just as angry as everything else. TW
Simmering: 4
Shouting: 3
Fighting: 0

Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter is the quintessential radical intellectual. The socialist, millionaire playwright would portray himself as a lover, not a fighter – but he's the most combative pacifist in British cultural life, with an angry opinion to declare in his spare, crackling prose on everything from the war in Iraq to... well, mostly the war in Iraq. In the past, he has been angered by other incidents resembling the war in Iraq, such as the war in Kosovo, the war in Afghanistan and the Gulf War. His ire is nothing if not predictable. Even when accepting one of his many, many awards – among them the Nobel Prize for literature – Pinter can't resist having a pop at US foreign policy. Many of his plays revolve around thinly veiled accusations directed at Western governments. Unfortunately for those governments, when a Nobel winner gets angry, people don't just point and laugh. They listen. TW
Simmering: 5
Shouting: 4
Fighting: 0

Sir Alex Ferguson

The ruddy Manchester United manager reserves much of his ire (and there is much) for the BBC. Since 2000, Ferguson has refused to speak to the corporation in a rift over critical remarks made by BBC man Pat Murphy and 5 Live commentator Alan Green. Already-charred bridges were burnt to a crisp four years ago when a BBC documentary accused Ferguson's agent son, Jason, of exploiting his father's position. Last year, he accused the corporation of "arrogance beyond belief". His reputation on the field is just as fearsome: players including Paul Ince, Jaap Stam and Dwight Yorke have left the club after bust-ups. In 2003, Ferguson's "poorly aimed" kick at a stray football boot left David Beckham nursing stitches above his left eye. SU
Simmering: 5
Shouting: 4
Fighting: 3

Cameron Diaz

Cameron Diaz doesn't just confront photographers, she takes them to court. Once, when snapped by a pair of paparazzi while out with her then-beau Justin Timberlake, Diaz snatched one of their cameras as "evidence". And when a photographer tried to sell her back topless shots taken when she was a model, she saw him sent to jail for forgery, perjury and attempted grand theft. Not someone to get on the wrong side of, then, as Timberlake learned to his cost. He allegedly found himself on the sharp end of more than one dressing down, including one reported incident shortly after they split, in which Diaz took exception to him talking to actress Jessica Biel after an awards ceremony. Timberlake is now in a relationship with Biel, so either he's particularly spiteful, or Diaz was right all along. TW
Simmering: 3
Shouting: 3
Fighting: 3

Robert Mugabe

Behind the Hitler moustache (he counts the Nazi leader as a role model), and public fist waving, the despotic Zimbabwean president could probably use a few sessions in anger management. Indeed, he once boasted that, in addition to his seven academic degrees (including in economics from the University of London – he presumably bunked off during the lecture on rampant inflation), he had a "degree in violence". As Mugabe fought to take the reigns of the former British colony in the 1980s, rival leaders died mysteriously, one in a car crash. An opposition newspaper saw its printing press blown up and journalists tortured, while challengers of the regime have been beaten. More recently, he has said homosexuality "degrades human dignity", calling on citizens to "arrest" gays and hand them over to the police. SU
Simmering: 5
Shouting: 3
Fighting: 2

Colin Montgomerie

The dubious distinction of being the best golfer never to win a major open (he has come second five times) is enough to make any man angry. Add to that persistent heckling from unimpressed American spectators (they coughed as he prepared to swing and called him "Mrs Doubtfire" in the 1990s) and a £15m divorce that nearly wrecked his career as well as his bank account, and it's no surprise that the nearly man of British golf has, as his stateside doubters might say, "issues" that make press conferences after his off-days suitable only for the bravest of journalists. Golf is that sort of game, though: during a clash with Geoff Ogilvy in Miami on Monday, Tiger Woods announced: "Next time a fucking photographer shoots a picture [on my backswing], I'm going to break his fucking neck." SU
Simmering: 5
Shouting: 3
Fighting: 0

Tom Aikens

What is it about chefs that make them so livid? Gordon Ramsay made a career out of it (he can cook a bit, granted), while the names Pierre White, Roux, Bourdain and Locatelli have become synonymous with cooker-side clashes. Michelin-starred chef Tom Aikens can stake a claim as one of catering's hottest heads. In 2004, he humiliated himself when he wrongly accused a diner of pocketing a French Ecuis spoon worth £25. Sarah Roe, a company director with a six-figure salary, told reporters: "I'm standing there with my Celine dress and Cartier bag and a receipt for more than £600 in my hand, and he's accusing me of stealing a coffee spoon. It was unbelievable." In 1999, Aikens, who has said that theft from restaurants is "out of control", lost his job at the leading London restaurant Pied-à-terre after allegedly branding a sous-chef with a palette knife. SU
Simmering: 4
Shouting: 3
Fighting: 4

Naomi Campbell

The south London-born supermodel has a list of transgressions as long as one of her perfectly sculpted legs. She has been accused of assaulting various assistants/housekeepers with, variously, a telephone, a BlackBerry, a fist, and a mobile phone. In 2006, she allegedly caused £30,000 worth of damage to her lover Prince Badr Jafar's £1.5m yacht after an Italian chef's "romantic" meal failed to float her boat. Quotes from victims and witnesses of her angry outbursts include: "She punched me in the face. She was like Mike Tyson"; "She's a violent super-bigot"; and "All hell seemed to break loose. All you could hear was shouting and screaming." SU
Simmering: 4
Shouting: 4
Fighting: 5

Russell Crowe

The Antipodean hard nut is as famed for his short fuse as he is for his Oscar-winning acting. Most famously, in 2005 he was charged with assault after he threw a telephone at a concierge in a Manhattan hotel,. A conditional release and $100,000 fine later, Crowe described it as "possibly the most shameful situation that I've ever gotten myself in... and I've done some pretty dumb things". Other incidents include a scuffle at a hotel, a row with a BAFTA producer and a brawl at a London sushi joint broken up by Ross Kemp. SU
Simmering: 3
Shouting: 4
Fighting: 5

How angry are you?
By John Walsh

1. Your next-door neighbour reverses his knackered Peugeot into your new Bentley Convertible and smashes a headlight before driving off. Do you:

1) Post a sternly worded letter through his front door, insisting he asks his insurance company to pay for the repair?

2) Send him a basket of fruit, with a note expressing regret about the accident but saying that "These Things Happen"?

3) Take a softball bat to all his ground-floor windows and leave a Post-it note on the last one saying, "Whoops! Sorry!"

2. You're in a ruinously posh restaurant. You're starving but, after 20 minutes, there's still no sign of your first course. Do you:

1) Chat calmly to your date and say, reassuringly, "Mmm, these salt granules are simply delicious"?

2) Summon a waiter and explain that you must leave by 9.30pm for a show and it's imperative you eat very soon?

3) Tell the waiter you suffer from acute hypoglycaemic disorder, characterised by sudden urges to ram the chrome pepper-grinder up his fundamental orifice?

3. At the end of a morning's intense work on your computer, the screen goes blank and the words, "An error of the type E890 has occurred" appear. Do you:

1) Roll your eyes, make an exasperated clicking noise with your tongue and start again?

2) Seize the keyboard, snap it in half over your knee and jump on the keys, while tearing at your hair and shouting, "You did that on purpose, you electronic shit!"?

3) Ring an IT expert and ask why errors, especially classified ones, are an essential part of computer software these days?

4. You're in a bar in Shoreditch, trying to impress a Russian supermodel. A local ruffian jogs your arm and spills red wine over the lady's dress. Do you:

1) Seize the lady's drink and hurl it in the ruffian's face, followed shortly by a bunch of fives in the kisser?

2) Say, "Goodness, how fortunate that Tatiana's frock is exactly the same scarlet hue as a Zinfandel 2003"?

3) Explain to the man that your friend's father is a Moscow mafia boss and you can have him killed unless he buys you a large Stolichnaya and takes care of the dry cleaning?

5. You see a white-van driver extend an arm and casually drop a McDonald's carton on the road. You hate litter. Do you:

1) Run after him, shouting, "Don't you realise that nonbiodegradable waste contributes to the despoliation of the planet?"?

2) Run after him and flick a used Tube ticket through his window, to teach him a lesson?

3) Run after him, vault on to his bonnet, stand up and pee all over his windscreen, shouting, "I'm sorry, it's just something I had to get rid of..."?

6. You are at the airport with hand luggage. You have forgotten the rule against carrying liquids. The security lady says she must confiscate your shampoo. Do you:

1) Shrug resignedly, smile weakly and say, "Don't worry, it was only Herbal Essences."?

2) Complain that, frankly, it would take a pretty formidable terrorist to hold up a plane with 200ml of elderflower and aloe vera?

3) Seize the bottle, drink the entire contents and proceed to the aircraft (hoping the queasy feeling will pass by the time the drinks trolley appears)?

Your score: 1. 1-B; 2-A; 3-C
2. 1-A; 2-B; 3-C
3. 1-A; 2-C; 3-B
4. 1-C; 2-A; 3-B
5. 1-A; 2-B; 3-C
6. 1-A; 2-B; 3-C

Mostly As – My, but you're the composed one, aren't you – slow to anger, calm in the face of fury-making provocation, positively Zen-like in your restraint. But is it possible that you might just be a teensy bit of a wimp?

Mostly Bs – You certainly have a tendency to crossness when exposed to the world's irritations, but you express yourself through legalism or sarcasm. Are you afraid of letting your potential for anger get the better of you?

Mostly Cs – Blimey. You're not Harold Pinter, are you?

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