Mind Matters -- May 2003
Written by Ron Sterling, M.D. and Published in Northwest Prime Time Magazine

Analyzing Anger

    Dear Dr. Ron:

      I am writing to you about my husband. He is 71 years old. He truly enjoyed his job and was at a loss when he retired three years ago. He finally found some part-time work to keep busy. He was always a very happy person until his father died. Over the last two years, Don has gotten more and more hostile. He does not sleep well and he has lost some weight. His doctor gave him Restoril for sleep, but it only worked for a few nights. He threw the pills out in a fit of anger. He seems depressed to me, but he tells me firmly -- "I am not depressed, just tired and getting old." What do you think will help? Signed: Worn Out by Anger in Auburn

    Dear Worn Out:

      Thank you for writing! There are many things that can get us into an angry place in our lives. We can be living such a complicated life and feel so pressured that even little things will set us off. A lot of road rage is like that. We may have a chip on our shoulder from a past experience that hurt us. We may misinterpret what people say to us as being more critical than it really is because we got criticized a lot while growing up. Sometimes, as we grow up, we learn to be short-tempered by example. Some people seem to be born cranky (more about that in a future column). None of these appear to fit Don's situation.

      Your conclusion that Don is depressed is probably correct. We now understand that one of the primary causes of irritability and oversensitivity is depression. Don's symptoms of irritability, loss of weight and a sleeping problem strongly indicate a depression that has biological connections. The fact his more hostile behavior began after retirement and the loss of his father also point toward depression being the likely cause of his irritability.

      Cranky people don't often get a lot of sympathy. Not only do they make us angry with their behavior, but we often think that people are mean because they are mean people, not just because they are having a bad biology day or a bad biology life. We would like to think that angry people should be able to learn how to control their feelings and behavior, but it is not necessarily just a willpower, discipline, or relaxation problem. In Don's case, it is not likely a personality problem simply because it started so late in his life.

      Crankiness that is one of the symptoms of a depression that has biological roots cannot generally be fixed by behavior modification or therapy alone. There is no excuse for hurting people through mean or hostile words and behavior. It is Don's responsibility to do something about it. The question is what can he do? Part of the solution will likely be a good antidepressant medication.

      I think that folks who display hostility as part of their depression are the most difficult to encourage to see their doctor or a mental health professional. Let me make this clear, such symptoms and behavior in Don's situation are not just part of growing old. Maybe he wants to be independent and solve these problems himself, or maybe he feels he doesn't have a problem. Maybe his doctor has not heard the news about irritability being a common symptom of depression and hasn't brought it to Don's attention. In any case, now you know, now Don can know, and hopefully, he can get the help he needs. Best wishes -- Dr. Ron.

        Author Bio:

        Ron Sterling, M.D. is a 64 year-old General and Geriatric Psychiatrist with a private practice in Seattle. He invites you to e-mail him at with any questions about mental wellness or emotional, relationship, or aging concerns. He is the only person who reads e-mail sent to Dr. Ron. Please be assured that your questions and identities are completely confidential and protected. For more information about Dr. Ron and for resources related to senior mental health, please go to SeniorMentalHealth.org. Read our Disclaimer.

        Thank You for Stopping By!

      Have a great day!

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