When I was growing up people often vented their anger over some recurring annoyance by expostulating, “I’m sick to death of …” The saying seems to have faded from use but the link between anger and sickness is receiving more and more attention.
Canadian psychologist Carsten Wrosch, a professor at Concordia University in Montreal, has recently published a book called Embitterment: Societal, psychological, and clinical perspectives, the product of 15 years’ research on how negative emotions affect people.
He and colleague Jesse Renaud have singled out failure as one of the most frequent causes of bitterness, with anger and recrimination as its typical attendants, says a press release.
Unlike regret, which is about self-blame and a case of “woulda, coulda, shoulda,” acrimony points the finger elsewhere — laying the blame for failure on external causes. “When harboured for a long time,” says Wrosch, “bitterness may forecast patterns of biological dysregulation (a physiological impairment that can affect metabolism, immune response or organ function) and physical disease.”
The opposite also seems to be true: optimism and life satisfaction are linked with a reduced mortality risk, an expert on aged care, Monika Merkes, points out:
In one longitudinal study, a group of young Catholic nuns were asked to write short, personal essays about their lives in the 1930s. More than 60 years later a group of researchers evaluated the essays for positive emotional content.
They found that the nuns who expressed the most positive emotions lived up to ten years longer than those who expressed the fewest.
Of course, genetic make-up, individual behaviour, social conditions and lifestyle all influence health status, and one school of thought considers social influences to be decisive. Wrocsh stresses “self-regulation” — finding other ways to fulfil one’s goals or otherwise disengaging from the sense of failure and engaging in something else.
Others obviously can help.
German psychiatrist Michael Linden says bitterness should be treated as a mental disorder (post-traumatic embitterment disorder or PTED) and appropriate therapy offered. I was thinking more along the lines of the resources typically offered by religious affiliation — encouragement (counselling) to accept failure and begin again, hope, trust in a loving God, and forgiving others — something Prof Wrosch advises.
Monika Merkes throws in some other hints:
Mindfulness meditation, for instance, is an excellent way to practice letting go of unhelpful feelings and to learn to be less reactive to real and imaginary stressful events.
Buddhist meditation techniques, Christian prayer — whatever frees you up.