The Age of the Rage: Why are we so Angry?
Did you know that one person in 20 has had a fight with a next-door neighbour? That one driver in four admits to committing an act of road rage? That cases of "air rage" rose by 400 per cent between 1997 and 2000? That stress has overtaken the common cold as the main reason for taking time off work?
We appear to be living in an age of rage. Earlier this week there seems to have been an incidence of "queue rage" in a supermarket during which a man was punched - and later died. The death raises the whole issue of apparently random acts of violence that are often the product of momentary losses of self-control.
"Check-out rage" is just one more to add to our already long long list of road, air, trolley, parking space and cyclist rage. It is why a motorist will follow a pedestrian on to a bus and stab him; why a shopper will break another shopper's nose for something as trivial as bumping into his or her trolley. When I was riding in a taxi in London recently a cyclist hammered on the window in fury at a perceived (imagined, in my view) transgression by the driver. In a flurry of F-and-C-words he threw a fistful of coins at the taxi. As far as I could see nothing had happened.
Anger, humankind's natural and healthy reaction to stressful situations, is increasingly being acted out via physical violence - even though we are richer, take more holidays and lead more comfortable lives than ever before. There are several theories as to why our society is becoming ever more infuriated. The fast pace at which we live our lives - "hurry sickness", for instance, has taught us to desire and demand instant gratification.
If something or someone delays us, we see it as a threat to our precious, finite time. There is also huge pressure to deliver at work in jobs that are increasingly insecure, competitive and ruthlessly based on performance.
Dr Michael Sinclair, a consultant psychologist in London specialising in anger management, says that, generally, people who grossly overreact to trivial events with violence are suffering from a central lack of confidence. The normal reaction, he says, when someone bumps into you is to think "that was a bit rude" and move on.
But angry people interpret everything as a personal slight, an insult to their already fragile egos. "Being bumped into will make the inadequate person feel even more inadequate," Sinclair explains. "It exacerbates their sense of vulnerability."
Times of economic gloom can exacerbate the problem. Sinclair says that he has recently seen his referrals increase as people battle to cope with the angry emotional fall-out from redundancy, heightened job insecurity or a suffocating mortgage. A person lacking in self-esteem can be driven to the edge by just a clipped letter from a bank.
Experts have said that in decades such as the 1960s and 1970s people tended to turn their frustration inwards, perhaps taking their anger out on their spouses behind closed doors. The tendency now is to turn it outwards: to externalise the problem to a complete stranger.
When people feel under threat they undergo physical and mental changes. Their heart rate, blood flow and tension rises as the body prepares for action. The mind goes into tunnel vision as it focuses on the threat and loses the bigger picture. Various factors will then inhibit the average person from acting upon it, such as not wanting to behave violently in public. But with more people behaving aggressively in public there is an unspoken "social permission" to do so.
And yet it is not as though everyone is walking around like a ticking hand grenade. Most of us - even though we may feel a surge of spleen when someone blocks our way - simply curse under our breath and walk away.
Sinclair says that anger is a process involving different stages: the environmental trigger, the interpretation of the trigger ("This person is disrespecting me") and the physical arousal - the adrenalin rush that defends the threat to self-esteem.
The British Association of Anger Management has produced a six-point plan to help people to manage anger:
1. Stop, think and look at the bigger picture. Consider the consequences between the event and the reaction.
2. It's OK to have a different opinion. Opinions are not facts - they are only what you think.
3. Listen carefully. Learn to listen. Observe the other person's body language. Verify: clarify information. Empathise: keep your heart open at all times.
4. Use your support network, a group of people on whom you can call when you need to talk to someone so that your anger doesn't get out of control.
5. Keep a journal. This is a powerful way of not internalising your anger. Your journal can be used as and when you need to. Record how you feel about what happened, and your views on a problem. Using your journal will bring clarity to the situation.
6. Don't take anything personally. Nothing that others do or say is because of you. What others do and say is a projection of their own reality on to you. When you are immune to the opinions, projections, behaviours and actions of others, you will not be a victim of needless suffering any longer