Joe Wilson's rant was rebuked by the House of Representatives. Serena William's tantrum cost her the U.S. Openand got her fined $10,500. Kanye West's onstage antics led to an off-the-record presidential censor. And Glenn Beck's on-air rage has Time magazine wondering if he's bad for America.
Celebrity meltdowns aren't exactly new: Remember Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade? And Zinedine Zidane's 2006 World Cup head-butt?
But losing your cool in public seems so commonplace these days that experts are scrambling for explanations, from technology (it's made us less patient) to narcissism (everyone just wants more time in the spotlight). Others write it off to a general loss of manners and civility.
Whatever the reason, emotional outbursts are no longer considered a good way to blow off steam. Today, psychologists say public ranting and raving may take a toll on your physical and emotional healthand your career.
Anger is natural, but dangerous
Anger, of course, is a naturally occurring emotion that once was crucial to survival. Anger can temporarily make you stronger, help you ignore pain, and improve enduranceall skills that were once critical to hunting and proving dominance.
However, it can also pose health risks. Anger raises your heart rate and blood pressure as it pumps your body full of stress hormones. In fact, one study found that angry people are five times more likely to die by age 50 than calmer people. Learning how to control your anger will help your heart and could even save your life.
But we live in a culture that is reinforcing these outbursts, says Stuart Fischoff, PhD, a professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, in Los Angeles, and the senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology. It seems there's some truth to the old saying "There's no such thing as bad publicity."
When Christian Bale blows up on set, he books interviews; when Bill O'Reilly screams at a teleprompter, hundreds of thousands of viewers search for the clip online. Celebrities learn to adopt "bad behavior, when what it provides is some kind of career advancement," says Fischoff. "As long as this culture continues, you can expect this behavior to continue."
Society needs an intervention
If we want these outbursts to stopand our celebrities' hearts to stop pumping so furiouslywe're going to have to uproot some of our basic beliefs about what constitutes a healthy way to deal with emotions. "Compare it to substance abuse," says Fischoff. "Society needs an intervention."
Common knowledge seems to suggest that if we don't periodically vent our emotions, we'll bottle up the feelings, forcing every frustration below the surface until one day we explode, Serena-style. Research shows, however, that this is not the case.
Take something like yelling into or punching a pillow. Afterward you will feel better, but that feeling of release reinforces the yelling and hitting as good behaviors, making you more likely to yell or hit again next time you're angry, says Mitchell Abrams, PsyD, a New York– and New Jersey–based sports psychologist, and the president of a sports psychology consulting company, Learned Excellence for Athletes. If you don't have a pillow or a punching bag in front of you, you'll turn to the next best thing, which very well could be a person.
"People that act out their anger tend to have social problems," Abrams says. "You can't yell into a pillow in the board room in front of your boss unless you want a pink slip."
Plus, acting out only makes you angrier, according to Pauline Wallin, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Pennsylvania, and the author of Taming Your Inner Brat. She explains that parents who spank their children will actually hit harder on the second or third whack than on the first as more anger-fueled adrenaline surges through them.
Instead, emotions should be "reframed in your mind," says Wallin. "When you get mad, you can say to yourself 'I choose to let this go.' That's not giving in; that's making a decision about how much you're going to let your anger control you."
Steps to controlling anger
Learning how to control these impulses may prove to be more difficult than crafting the perfect post-outburst apology. Abrams compares anger to a volume dial that needs to be turned down through a series of steps.
Take a deep breath
The first step in turning down the volume is calming yourself down physically. It sounds cliche, but when you sense your anger reaching a breaking point, take a few deep breaths.
Controlling your breathing will help decrease all the other physiological signs of anger that are beyond your control, like increased heart rate, sweating, and elevated blood pressure. When you slow your breathing, all the other signs naturally follow, Abrams says, until your entire "fight or flight" mechanism shuts off, quelling your anger.
Question the urge to retaliate
After your breathing has slowedyou won't make logical decisions at the peak of your angerask yourself if retaliating is a good use of your energy. Wallin suggests imagining you only have $1 worth of energy to spend each day. Arguably, the most important tennis match of your career would probably be worth shelling out big bucks, but being cut off in traffic is not going to matter much in the grand scheme of things.
If you have evaluated the situation and still feel your anger is justifiedfor example, if you are angry at someone who is threatening to hurt your childremember you still run the risk of regretting an outburst later (as opposed to reacting calmly), Wallin warns.
Run your anger away
Channel the energy you save into a healthy release like exercise. Abrams warns that your activity of choice should not be violent, however, and even people like professional boxers should avoid taking it out on the punching bag. Running, swimming, and even weight training are better options.
Practice relaxation techniques
Practice slowing your breathing as well as visualization techniques in calmer situations. These exercises can be very effective sleep aids, says Abrams, and it is important to learn how to use them properly before depending on them to keep you from an outburst.
It's important also to remember that celebrities are only human: Everyone has a bad day every once in a while. But there's really no excuse for their risky behavior. "It may not be fair, but when you're in the public eye, you're held to a different standard," says Abrams. "They have to be better able to control their impulses."