Calm down. Chill out. Learn to relax. Take a breather. Clichés they may be, but they could save your life and that of your unborn child. Every day we hear about new cases of road rage, air rage, supermarket rage…you name it. It seems that no-one is immune, we cannot escape those feelings– from mild annoyance to almost demonic rage–and even more alarming, we cannot, in most cases, control it either.
Anger is a completely normal, and usually healthy, emotion. We have all experienced anger due to frustration, hurt, betrayal, annoyance, disappointment, harassment and threats. It is imperative to acknowledge that anger can either help or hinder us depending on how it is expressed. If expressed appropriately, it can help achieve goals, handle emergencies, solve problems and even, to some, protect our health (the famous flight-or-fight theory bears this out). Failure to recognize and understand our anger may, however, lead to a variety of problems.
Dr Miriam Stoppard, author and pregnancy heath care guru, believes that a baby first experiences the world through its mother. The baby not only experiences external stimuli but also its mother’s feelings as different emotions trigger the release of certain chemicals into the bloodstream. These chemicals then pass across the placenta to the baby within seconds of mom experiencing an emotion.
According to APA (American Psychologists Association) documentation, anger is accompanied by physiological and biological changes: when we get angry, our heart rates and blood pressure go up, as do the levels of our energy hormones as adrenaline and epinephrine are released, contributing to growing tension and causing blood vessels to constrict. This reduces oxygen to the uterus, thus compromising fetal blood supply. Even suppressed anger has long been thought to cause anxiety and depression. The Counselling Center for Human Development at the University of Florida agrees that anger can have detrimental effects on relationships, patterns of thinking, and cause many physical problems including colds, ulcers, asthma, high blood pressure (hypertension), heart problems, headaches, skin disorders and digestive problems.
The UK-based charity Tommy’s, the baby charity, is dedicated to funding research into, and providing information on, the causes of miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth. Tommy’s research has shown that long-term anger or anxiety can have detrimental effects on your baby. Some effects include premature birth (delivered before 37 weeks), a problematic birth or even result in a low birth weight (even when full term), and this is the leading cause of infant mortality. Normal birth weight is defined as greater that 5 lb. 5 oz.; moderately low birth weight is 3 lb. 5 oz. to 5 lb. 8 oz., and very low birth weight is less than 3 lb. 5 oz.
Premature babies are susceptible to a range of complications later in life, including chronic lung disease, developmental delays and learning disorders, and as adults are more likely to suffer from heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Tommy’s studies have also suggested that stress in the womb could affect baby’s temperament. Babies whose mothers experienced high levels of stress, particularly in the first trimester, show signs of more depression and irritability (as well as being colicky). Research has also indicated that extreme anxiety during pregnancy could double a mother’s chance of having a hyperactive child.
There is also a direct link between uncontrolled anger and crime, emotional and physical abuse and other violent behavior. Humans instinctively express anger through aggression, as anger is a natural response to that which threatens us. Most people are able to control their anger, however, there are those who find it increasingly difficult and “fly off the handle” with the least provocation; and unsurprisingly it is these people who, perhaps because they are under greater stress from frequent arousal, are more likely than others to engage in habits that are dangerous to their health such as smoking, excessive alcohol use and overeating.
There are several theories as to why some people are more “hot headed” than others, and the first is that it is a result of genetics. There is evidence of some babies being born irritable and easily angered, and these signs are present from an early age.
The APA believes another contributing factor may be socio-cultural, as anger is often regarded as a negative emotion; we are taught not to display anger and so are not taught how to handle it or channel it constructively. It is also thought that family background plays a role as those who are easily angered typically come from families that are disruptive or not skilled at emotional communication. Anger is also often expressed by way of learned behaviors as we tend to express our anger and frustrations in ways learned from our parents, meaning we can unlearn and replace such behaviors with healthier patterns of coping.
Anger Tool Kit
How angry are you?
- You are always being told you need to calm down
- You often feel tense and stressed
- You drink and/or smoke to relieve “stress”
- You have trouble getting to sleep/sleeping
- You shout and curse a lot
- You do not say what is on your mind but find you plot revenge and “get them back,” even if they are unaware of having upset you in the first place
How bad is your temper?
- Are you quick to anger?
- Do you have a hot temper, with little provocation needed?
- Do you get angry and then bottle up your feelings?
- Are you slow to boil and then get out of control?
- Does your anger often pass mere annoyance and go straight to outright rage?
- Are you aware how often you “lose it”?
How are you feeling right now? The company angermgmt.com includes the following as just some of the names we give to our feelings of anger:
- Anxious / scared
Who/ what are you angry with?
- Spouse or partner
- Your children
- All men
- Nothing in particular
0-10= Manageable, although you could probably benefit from relaxation training.
10-25= Moderate: you need to learn more about what triggers stress and learn stress management techniques.
25+ = Out of control: you definitely have an anger problem and could benefit from learning anger management techniques.
Keeping Anger at Bay
The APA suggests the following guidelines for keeping anger at bay:
1.Relaxation: simple relaxation tools such as deep breathing and relaxing imagery can be effective. Relaxation techniques are also taught in childbirth education classes. Simple steps you can try:
- Breathe deeply, from your diaphragm. Picture your breath coming from deep inside your body and not just from your chest.
- Slowly repeat a calming word or phrase such as “relax” or “keep calm” while breathing deeply.
- Non-strenuous, slow yoga-like exercises can relax your muscles and make you feel calmer.
2. Change the way you think:
- Angry people tend to curse or speak in highly colourful terms which reflect their inner feelings and thoughts, so when angry try replace those usual dramatic thoughts with more rational ones.
3. Improve communication:
- Angry people also tend to jump to conclusions, and some of those conclusions can be inaccurate. The fist thing to do is slow down and think through your responses.
4. Break the habit:
- Become aware of what makes you angry and then try discover other ways to deal with such situations. If you cannot change who/ what angers you, change the way you react to the person/situation.
5. Take a look at your life:
- You may want to look at how tired you are or how stressed you are each day. Should you be tired, sick or just under stress you will anger and become frustrated more easily.
- You should be sure to eat a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep and avoid alcohol and cigarettes.
- Exercise also keeps pregnant women fit and its benefit is twofold. Not only will you receive an emotional lift from the release of endorphins, but your energy level will be increased and common complaints like backaches, breathlessness and constipation will be minimised by regular exercise.
American Psychological Association
Telephone: (202) 336 5700