November 7, 2004
The Election's Over. Are You Still Losing It?
By DAMIEN CAVE
TEVEN STOSNY, a psychologist and anger specialist in Washington, began treating patients with political rage problems during the battle over President Bill Clinton's impeachment. After the presidential election on Tuesday, he started receiving calls once again from livid Democrats, including a Kerry campaign staff member who said she was furious with George W. Bush, and was taking it out on her husband.
"These political families are collapsing at the finish line," said Dr. Stosny, the author of self-help books like "The Powerful Self." "They just can't take it anymore."
Both political parties could probably use a little time on the couch just now: therapists say the 2004 campaign was one of the most disturbing, hate-filled contests on record. Voters on the left frequently admitted to fighting for Senator John Kerry's election simply because they wanted "anybody but Bush." Conservatives, on television and on Web sites, regularly impugned Mr. Kerry's patriotism and what they saw as his lack of core beliefs.
Now, however, might be the time to kiss and make up. After all, medical studies have shown that anger can lead to heart disease. And it's hard to get anything done if you hate the people you work with. Who wants to live in a country filled with road-raging Volvo peaceniks and gay-marriage opponents who think "Will & Grace" recruits people to homosexuality?
"If we just stay in this negative place, it will take a toll," said Dr. Redford B. Williams, director of the behavioral medicine research center at Duke University. "There's been a trauma here, and if we don't recover — if we continue to ruminate about it — there will be health and social consequences."
Dr. Williams, an author of "Lifeskills," a guide to conflict prevention, offered a handful of ways to deal with negative emotion. Hitting a pillow is out; deep breathing is in. Suggestions for redirecting negative emotion toward constructive action — even writing a letter to Congress, as feeble as it may seem — now dominate the therapeutic literature.
But such solutions may require an epic force of will. For some, the frustration has been building since the 1960's. Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist research center, said many Democrats were still reeling from the party's losses to Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Many felt last week as if they were overdue for a win, after the Clinton impeachment fight, Mr. Bush's victory in 2000 and the rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The latest loss, he said, has given Democrats a sense of injustice bordering on the biblical.
"This is Jacob and Esau," he said, citing the Old Testament story of the competing sons of Isaac. "Esau's sense of himself as the rightful heir was in some ways legitimate, and yet he didn't get the prize. How is that kind of resentment slaked?"
The partisan divide tends to make the anger especially intractable. Consider the word "polarization."
"It has two definitions," said Jonathan Lear, a professor of social thought at the University of Chicago, "One is the standard idea that both sides of the country have gone out to further extremes. But `polarized' sunglasses let in less of what's outside. Part of polarization is not taking in certain things."
This blinding tendency tends to make the anger self-perpetuating. Each side bores in on the other's failures. Emotions are stirred to fever pitch; self-examination is lost.
No one, apparently, is immune. Peter Wolson, a psychoanalyst in Beverly Hills, Calif., said that several colleagues at a recent conference accused the Bush administration of being intolerant and fascistic while "they themselves were vilifying the Republican Party en masse."
"It was irrational black-and-white splitting," he said. "The good and bad guys. For the Democrats the `evildoers' became the Republicans."
Anger may feel justified and to a degree righteous after a political loss. But consider the health consequences. Several studies have connected anger with an increase in the risk of heart disease. One landmark report that tracked 13,000 patients, published in the journal Circulation in 2000, found that participants with high anger traits were nearly three times more likely to suffer heart attacks or require bypass surgery than those with less.
"If any election had the potential to activate this health-damaging tendency," said Dr. Williams of Duke, "this would be it."
Luckily for the Incredible Hulks in the population, who could explode at any moment with comic-book intensity, there are ways to manage anger. Therapists vary their focus, but all seem to agree on what not to do.
Forget throwing darts at a picture of the candidate you loathe, for example, or punching a pillow. Studies show that such violent actions "create a habit of being aggressive," Dr. Stosny said. "You're training your brain to be more offensive."
Nor will it do any good to obsess about mistakes made by those outside your control, be they Mr. Kerry or the young voters who failed to turn out as expected. Alcohol, a depressant, will not help either.
Rather, anger specialists said, Democrats ought to redirect their rage toward constructive action. Phil Towle, a performance coach whose intervention with the warring members of Metallica was the subject of a documentary film this year, said that emotional intensity can be valuable only when correctly focused.
"One of the things we did with Metallica was help them understand that they could create music that had the edge but that was motivated by love and passion as opposed to disrespect or hate of each other," Mr. Towle said. "The people who lost or won — both parties really — need to take their energy and find a way to keep the anger alive through passion, through conviction, through belief."
A first step: expanding the focus beyond electoral politics. "What you do is write letters to Congress," Mr. Towle said. "You change your own behavior. You change your own environment. You can take any of the issues that you care about and find a way to do something."
Dr. Williams, in "Lifeskills," describes conversational tactics that can prevent conflicts that lead to outbursts. "The first is speaking clearly in ways that increase the likelihood your message will be heard," he said. "Wrong: `You just want to give a big tax break to your rich friends.' Better: `I'm concerned that giving 40 percent of the tax break to people making over $200,000 per year is unlikely to produce increased spending that we need to help the economy.' "
Listening skills, he said, also help defuse ticking tempers. People should keep quiet till the other person finishes, "something Ann Coulter is constitutionally unable to do," he said, after admitting that he is a bit peeved himself about the election.
Angry partisans should also appear interested in what those on the other side are saying. "When they finish, tell them what you have heard," he said, and stay open to opposing arguments. "Be prepared — only open to the possibility, you don't have to be changed — to be changed by what you hear."
This of course assumes that furious Democrats want to talk politics at all. That may not be the case. Matt Aydelott, an academic administrator in Southern California, said he first started to feel the anger rise like bile when Florida's vote total tipped toward Mr. Bush. And by the next afternoon, despair and disbelief had curdled into rage.
As he put it in an e-mail message during Mr. Kerry's concession speech, "I can't decide whether to cry or punch somebody in the face."