Day after day, I was irrationally furious, and when I wasn't feeling bad about myself for being so unpleasant, I was getting mad about the next thing. After a few weeks, my back started to hurt. Then my head. Eventually I had a dull ache all over. Therapists told me I wasn't depressed; doctors told me I was physically healthy. I went to an acupuncturist. I took ibuprofen. But I couldn't shake the feeling.
Anger is one of the most basic human emotions, and according to some experts, more and more women are seeking help to contain it. When Rachel McDavid, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York City, started running anger management workshops in 2007, "it was mostly men," she says. "But over the past few years, I've had several workshops that were almost completely filled with women." The uptick is due in part to a cultural shift that's made it more acceptable for women to display negative emotions. "While women are still socialized to suppress anger, we now have some powerful female role models—Hillary Clinton, say, or Sheryl Sandberg—who aren't sweet and happy all the time and who show that it's okay to be assertive and express frustration," says Stacey M. Rosenfeld, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York and California.
But there's also been a sharp rise in just how stressed women are. According to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, 43 percent of women feel that their stress levels have increased over the past five years—and about 39 percent experience "irritability or anger" as a symptom of stress. "Women are juggling so many different roles in so many different settings," says Mary Alvord, PhD, a psychologist and adjunct associate professor at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. "That's not new; women have been doing this balancing act for decades. But these days the expectations—that you're leaning in, plugged in, chipping in—are higher, while our network of support is smaller. It used to be that you had family and friends nearby, but that tribe is shrinking, because people are either just as busy as you are or too far away to help." And when you consider that married moms with children under 18 are now the primary breadwinner in 15 percent of households (up from just 4 percent in 1960), that daughters are more than twice as likely as sons to care for aging parents and that mothers still do nearly double the childcare and housework dads do, it's not surprising that many women are nearing the end of one very frayed rope.
When I asked my friends whether stress was making them angrier, they laughed and chimed in with stories of free-floating rage. One friend said she blew up at a cab driver who got lost when she was late for a meeting ("I didn't even give the guy a tip," she says now with a twinge of guilt). Another recalled how bad she felt after shouting at her cubicle mate for playing his music too loud. It was clear that this feeling—we jokingly called it angry woman syndrome (AWS)—had gotten under our skin.
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