Hostility is stressful, both ways. To giver and receiver alike, hostility metes out its toxic charge of badness. Far from being a true relief for frustration, pent-up anger, or unexpressed emotion, a sudden explosion of hostility merely releases a burst of energy and briefly discharges some muscle tension. Beyond these ephemeral effects, it is hard to find a good justification for hostility in everyday situations. So why is it so prevalent?
Two reasons account for hostility’s “popularity.” The first is the genetically programmed aggression instinct, which, in its proper setting and situation, can be useful (in a competitive physical sport like football), or downright vital (in combat situations, to fight off an aggressor, or in other situations of danger when a calm and relaxed demeanor would be clearly out of place). We can be aggressive and hostile by design, but we are also given a brain that helps mitigate the limbic system’s rage of emotions, and the amygdala’s watchfulness against aggressors, real or perceived as they may be.
The second reason for the pervasive presence of hostility is a misfiring of the very structures of the brain that are supposed to help us regulate it. Poor regulation of negative emotions can unleash hostility. Notoriously so, antisocial personalities have little to no self-regulation of hostility and most of the times this lands them in jail. Many more individuals, though, fall short of law-breaking hostility but still exhibit plenty of it in everyday situations (behind the wheel of their car, while waiting in line, with customer service people, with their spouses, children, friends) to make life more stressful for themselves and for anyone they come in contact with.
At the other end of the spectrum, hostility, while present as a natural emotion, can be sublimated into a more productive and less threatening display of displeasure with someone or a situation. Well-regulated hostility and aggressive instinct become assertiveness, standing up for one’s right, engaging in an passionate discussion. It can also sublimate into artistic pursuit, an all-out workout at the gym, or humor. A recent example of the latter was portrayed by JetBlue flight attendant Jeff Slater. Justifiably enraged by an unjustifiably aggressive passenger, Mr. Slater regulated down his hostility, expressed himself aloud on the plane’s PA system, grabbed a couple of beers, activated the emergency slide, slid down to the tarmac, ran for his car and drove home.
Hostility and (Bad) Health
Negative emotional states, such as anger and hostility, when they persist over time and become chronic, can negatively impact health. The risk to health comes through a number of mechanisms, including engaging in high-risk behavior (verbally provoking, physically attacking others), loss of social support (no one wants to be with a chronically hostile individual), and social isolation.
Chronic negative emotions also induce a semi-permanent activation of the stress reaction and cause sustained systemic inflammation, both of which increase the risk of disease. Research on hostility and aggressive personality has clearly established a link between these emotional states and heart disease, heart attacks, and cardiac-related mortality. Hostility not only contributes to a higher incidence and increased severity of heart disease, but is also related to symptoms of metabolic syndrome, including insulin resistance.
What Can Be Done?
Taking a page from Mr. Slater’s playbook, humor is one of the highest levels of sublimation that can be achieved in down-regulating aggression and hostility. Other forms of self-regulation of hostility (which incidentally are also ways of dealing with stressful situations in general) can be listed as follows:
- Anticipation (the ability to anticipate the consequences of hostility and evaluate alternative responses)
- Affiliation (turning to others for help and support, initiating a dialogue instead of a confrontation)
- Altruism (taking into account the needs of others, and being able to contain rather than meet their aggression head on)
- Humor (finding the amusing and the ironic in the situation)
- Self-assertion (expressing feelings and thoughts directly and openly, but without resorting to verbal or physical violence)
- Self-observation (reflecting on one’s own reactions and regulating them appropriately, before the explosion occurs)
- Sublimation (channeling negative feelings into positive behaviors, i.e. taking it out on gym equipment, a good run, a distracting activity)
- Suppression (intentionally avoiding catastrophic, negative and pessimistic thoughts that can lead to aggression).