When uncontrolled anger becomes a soldier's enemy

February 28, 2012 By Laura Rico, University of California, Irvine

Economic setbacks, work pressures and the annoyances of daily life – such as long lines and rush-hour traffic – can cause otherwise calm people to snap and lose their cool. But when anger begins to affect personal relationships, on-the-job performance and physical health, it’s time for an intervention.

UC Irvine’s Raymond Novaco is a leading authority on the psychology of and violence. He pioneered the field of anger management in the 1970s, later extending that work to hospitalized patients and Vietnam combat veterans. Recently, he has applied his anger assessment research to soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“A substantial number of our current war veterans have difficulty controlling their anger,” says Novaco, professor of psychology & social behavior. “This has serious implications for their ability to maintain supportive personal relationships and jobs.”

Researchers have found that 57 percent of combat veterans who used Veterans Affairs medical services experienced “more problems controlling anger since homecoming.” About 35 percent said they had “thoughts or concerns about hurting someone,” and of those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, 84 percent reported greater difficulty in anger management.

Novaco recently developed and tested his seven-question screening tool that assesses anger among combat veterans and predicts their risk for violence and self-harm by measuring the frequency, intensity and duration of anger episodes and their psychosocial effects.

In collaboration with psychologists Rob Swanson, Mark Reger and Gregory Gahm at Madigan Army Medical Center in Fort Lewis, Washington, Novaco and graduate student Oscar Gonzalez used the questionnaire to evaluate more than 3,500 treatment-seeking soldiers who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Study findings strongly validated the anger measure, including its association with functional impairments in relationships, job performance and coping skills, as well as with substance use. Novaco’s assessment tool was also conclusively related to the risk of harm to self or others, controlling for many background factors and symptoms of PTSD and depression.

The results are published online in Psychological Assessment, a journal of the American Psychological Association, in advance of its printed issue.

“Anger is part of the human fabric, the emotional component of the fight-or-flight response to threats,” Novaco says. “It becomes a problem when it’s too frequent, too intense, lasts too long and activates violence.”

Managing anger is fundamentally about self-regulation, he notes, and starts with self-monitoring.

“Someone with a recurrent anger problem has a broken thermostat,” Novaco says. “One of the first goals in anger treatment is to boost self-monitoring capacity. The ability to recognize early physical signs of anger – such as tense muscles, rapid breathing and agitation – is an important step toward controlling it.”

The anger treatment that he developed and used in past work with Vietnam veterans is called “stress inoculation,” in which anger-provoking situations are simulated in imaginal and role-playing exposures. These graduated doses of stress produce “anger antibodies,” building coping skills and moderating the individual’s reactions in real-life scenarios.

Learning how to change one’s perceptions of upsetting situations, improving one’s problem-solving abilities and mastering arousal reduction techniques – breathing exercises and guided imagery, for example – are crucial to anger management, Novaco says.

He hopes his findings prompt greater attention to the assessment of anger in behavioral health evaluations of post-deployed service members. “For most veterans,” Novaco notes, “the cost of staying angry is a lot higher than the cost of trying to change.”

Explore further: Research shows it can be good to get angry at work

Related Stories

Research shows it can be good to get angry at work

August 10, 2011
Researchers at the University of Liverpool have found that anger used by managers in the construction industry has a positive impact and contributes to the success of a project.

The dark side of Oxytocin

August 1, 2011
For a hormone, oxytocin is pretty famous. It’s the “cuddle chemical”—the hormone that helps mothers bond with their babies. Salespeople can buy oxytocin spray on the internet, to make their clients trust ...

Heavy drinking linked to more frequent and more severe aggression in relationships

July 5, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Drinking by one or both partners increases levels of severity, anger and fear reported by victims of intimate partner aggression, according to a new study by University of Otago researchers.

Recommended for you

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

Reducing sessions of trauma-focused psychotherapy does not affect effectiveness

January 17, 2018
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) patients treated with as few as five sessions of trauma-focused psychotherapy find it equally effective as receiving 12 sessions.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

ziphead
not rated yet Feb 28, 2012
Watch it if you raise your voice; anger police is out to get ya.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.