Learning Not to Lash Out

Your boss chews you out over something inconsequential, and hours later, on the drive home, you find yourself replaying her comments over and over again. And you've got plenty of time: The traffic has you inching along the highway for 45 minutes. By the time you get home, you're seething—at your boss, at the highway, at the world. As you stomp up the driveway, your little cocker spaniel Brownie trips you up, and you snap. You shout at her and smack her on the rump—and immediately feel like a class A jerk.

What just happened? Psychologists call it displaced aggression, but most of us recognize it as the kick-the-dog effect. Anger and frustration in one part of life can lead us to lash out at innocent people (or pets) in another. The key is rumination, a destructive—and common—mental habit. Rumination is what you do when you repeatedly relive an experience in your mind, replaying it, reviewing it, and reinterpreting it. It plays a major role in depression—pushing people over the edge from a temporary sad mood into a major, lasting sadness. The habit can also turn a nervous person into someone truly suffering from anxiety.

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Psychologists have evidence that rumination also plays a significant role in postponed and redirected anger. As you mull over the details of an enraging episode, you may think you're trying to get more information out of it—a new understanding. But you're not really learning anything new. As you continue replay the action, you keep the frustration and anger fresh and etch the incident into your mind. Hours later, even though you might no longer feel physically angry, these painful thoughts are still in the back of your mind. You can't retaliate against your boss, since he'd fire you. You can't take it out on the traffic, since there's nothing to be done about it. So when faced with a trivial annoyance—like a clumsy dog—you go ballistic.

Psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, who has studied rumination, theorizes that as you continue to focus on anger-provoking situations, you form new angry associations, setting up a vicious circle of anger and rumination. Because part of anger involves self-justification (i.e, the feeling that you are right to be angry), the anger only grows as you continue to think of reasons why you were right and the other person wrong.

Research led by psychologist Fred Bushman at the University of Michigan shows how likely people are to overreact to a minor annoyance after ruminating over an previous insult. In his study, participants were interrupted and humiliated while doing a difficult task. Some were asked to think about the experience, and some were distracted from mulling it over. When all of them were later given a chance to retaliate against a hapless research assistant, those who'd been ruminating were much more apt to do so.

The hostile-attribution bias, which kicks in when you're seething with anger, makes matters worse. The term describes the fact that when you're preoccupied with angry thoughts, you're much more likely to see in other people's ambiguous behavior a negative, personal slight.

That person who barged into you while chattering on her cell phone? If you were in a calmer state of mind, you'd just assume she wasn't paying attention. But if your mind is churning with angry thoughts, you're going to assume she did it on purpose. Rumination makes it much more likely that you'll jump to such an antagonistic conclusion.

Anger fueled by rumination can be especially hard to halt. Pay attention to how long you allow yourself to replay an infuriating scenario in your head. After 10 to 20 minutes, the initial burst of anger usually wears off. If you're still thinking about it, that's a good sign that you're probably not getting any new insights.

Trying to short-circuit the cycle by squelching your angry thoughts usually isn't very effective. Research suggests that a better technique is to distract yourself.

Other tactics: exercising or finding something funny to entertain yourself with. It's almost impossible to laugh and be angry at the same time.

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