In the Random House College Dictionary, “hostile” is defined as follows:
1. opposed in feeling, action, or character; antagonistic;
2. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of an enemy;
3. not friendly; inhospitable.
Hostility is further defined as opposition or resistance to an idea, plans, project, etc. Related words, such as argumentative, contrary, opposed, belligerent, contentious, and militant, conjure up images that should help us avoid people who exhibit the above behaviors. Moreover, when hostility escalates to a more intense level, it can be dangerous for the receiver as well as the aggressor.
We have all seen examples of people who have varying degrees of hostility. On a recent Saturday night, I stopped by my favorite newsstand to buy a copy of the Sunday newspaper. When I arrived, a man who had made a purchase earlier was lambasting the cashier. He claimed that he asked if the magazine that he’d purchased was the current issue, and he was assured that it was. When he returned with the magazine, the cashier was replacing the issue of the magazine with the current edition. He told the customer that he had just found the time to update the copies on the newsstand. The guy erupted and totally overreacted to the information.
The kind of hostility that I’ve described is not good for one’s health either. According to Tilmer Engebretson, Professor of Psychiatry at Ohio State University, and co-author of a new study from Behavioral Medicine Research, “People who show a high level of a particular kind of hostility — called aggressive responding — may be at higher risk than others for developing heart disease. Aggressive responders tend to have a tough, somewhat cold-hearted view of the world and people around them.”
A hostile reaction can also indicate signs and symptoms of emotional stress. Some of the symptoms include, but are not limited to: irritability, angry outbursts, hostility, depression, jealousy, restlessness, withdrawal, anxiousness, diminished initiative, feelings of unreality or over-alertness, reduction of personal involvement with others, lack of interest, being critical of others, self-deprecation, nightmares, impatience, decreased perception of positive experience opportunities, reduced self-esteem, and weakened positive-emotional-response reflexes.
So how does one deal with intense feelings? If you are dealing with an angry or hostile customer, remember that it’s not personal. While their behavior is directed at you (and it can be personally insulting), the real source of the anger is elsewhere. The angry person is usually angry at the organization, which is perceived as cold, unfeeling, and unhelpful. Since it’s difficult to yell at or abuse an entire organization, the angry customer will direct his anger toward you.
When someone attacks you with words, most people fight back, saying way too much, or they stifle themselves, saying nothing. Defending yourself with certain ideas, expressed in a few words, gives your attacker a bewildering choice: They either have to attack the idea, or they have to attack the part of you, which is instinctive and capable of defending itself.
Researchers are finding that people can change their characteristic responses to anger and hostility. In one study, heart-attack patients received counseling on reducing anger and hostility. Over the next 4.5 years, this group of patients had about 50% fewer subsequent heart attacks than a control group. All patients had so-called “Type A” personalities, characterized by hostility, impatience, and anxiety.*
Experts suggest seven tactics for coping with hostility and anger:
- Work Exercise into Your Life
Regular exercise has been shown to reduce stress and improve mood — which makes it easier to cope with life’s daily ups and downs. Yoga and other exercises designed to encourage relaxation may be particularly effective. In one study, participants who took a 60-minute yoga class once a week scored lower on anger tests than those who did not.
- Ask Yourself If It’s Worth It to React in a Hostile Way
When you start to feel yourself becoming angry and hostile, take a few seconds to ask yourself:
• Is this important enough to get angry over? ”
• Do I have any control over this? Can I change things for the better?
For many of life’s inconveniences — such as long checkout lines or traffic jams — you’ll probably find yourself answering “no” to one or both of these questions. It’s usually not worth your time to get angry or react in a hostile way in these situations. However, if your answer is “yes” to both questions, it may be worth taking action by expressing your anger.
- Learn How to Cope More Effectively with Everyday Frustrations
Try breaking tension by taking several deep breaths and relaxing your muscles. You might slowly repeat a calming word or phrase, such as “peace” or “I can handle this.” Soothing music, or visualizing yourself relaxing in a favorite restful spot, also can help.
- Examine How You Communicate
Many situations that breed anger or hostile feelings involve other people. In these situations, it helps to understand that one person’s anger or hostile reaction often feeds on another’s. For instance, if someone says something hostile to you, it’s natural to want to lash back with your own hostile comment — or to storm out of the room. But where do these scenarios usually end up? The situation often concludes with a lot of hurt or unresolved feelings — and possibly worse. So controlling anger involves knowing how not to anger others — as well as how to cope with your own feelings. Easier said than done? Try these strategies the next time you’re faced with a heated discussion:
• Take some deep breaths to calm yourself down. If possible, take a brisk walk around the block.
• Try to speak as calmly and logically as possible. Try not to say the first thing that comes into your head. Instead, take a deep breath and think carefully about what you want to say.
• Listen respectfully to what the other person has to say.
• Avoid all-or-nothing phrases, such as “you always” and “you never”, which tend to alienate others.
• Don’t make demands (“I must have…” or “I want…”). Instead, politely state your desires and needs (“I would like…” or “It upsets me when you…”).
• If one of you is too angry to continue, suggest taking a “time-out” and continuing the discussion later.Finally, listen to how you think. If you think in angry and negative terms, you’ll be more likely to speak and behave that way, too. For instance, try replacing irrational, dramatic thoughts (“This is a catastrophe!”) with rational, calm ones (“We’ll get through this”).
- Try a Little Humor
Humor can be an effective antidote for anger. It can quickly defuse tense feelings and help put things into perspective. One simple trick is to put pictures to the phrases you use in anger. Let’s say a friend is “driving you up the wall.” Try picturing this friend driving a bulldozer and chasing you up the wall of a skyscraper. But don’t go too far and make light of a serious situation. Also, be careful if you find yourself slipping into nasty sarcasm. Sarcasm is sometimes another unhealthy way that people express anger.
- Look for Alternatives
Do you typically get angry or upset only in certain situations? For several weeks, keep a record of when and where you get angry. Then see if certain trends or triggers become apparent. For instance, maybe you’ll find that crowded stores set you off. Then see if there are ways to change these situations or find alternatives. For example, you might plan your grocery shopping for early or late in the day, so you avoid the crowds.
- Consider Counseling
Need some extra help with anger? For a free consultation, contact a therapist in your area.
It’s important to remember that all of us probably have daily bouts in some measure with hostility. We are traditionally inclined to see this hostility as a force welling up within us. When we see it in others, we easily interpret it only as a desire to hurt, especially if we must bear the brunt. Yet whether we experience it in ourselves, or have to deal with it in our associates, the key is to understand the person himself. Behind the mask of his hostility, we find these important characteristics: deep concern with social relations, his far-reaching convictions regarding human nature, the wager that he could not afford to lose, and his frantic effort to collect winnings long after the race was run and hopelessly lost.
* Source — St. Francis Hospitals
Andrea Brandt, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage, Family and Child Therapist specializing in couple counseling, divorce, custody issues, and women’s concerns. She is a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.