IT'S A FAMILIAR FEELING. You're late for work, you've had a row with your spouse and you've just realised your Octopus card has run out. You grope in your pocket - no change. So you power-walk to the nearest automatic teller, sweat prickling your brow and dappling your shirt, only to be elbowed aside by a little old woman who decides it's time to gloat lingeringly over the balance of her various stashes of cash. You hear an icky squish and look down - your just-shined shoe has been enveloped by a fresh and sticky gob of phlegm. Funds finally secured, footwear hastily scraped, you dash for the train. It's sitting there, doors tantalisingly open. Great. You pick up the pace, then, bang, they slam shut, nearly severing your nose. 'We apologise, there will be a slight delay before the next train,' intones the metallic, disembodied voice. At this point, most mortals will let out a strangled yelp, a stream of invective or, like a shopaholic tourist over-stuffing a suitcase, cram it all away only to explode luridly later. In an age where rage is all the rage, you would expect Hong Kong to be the perfect city in which to lose your rag, blow your top, spit the dummy or throw a wobbly. A Mecca for the mad. Space is limited. Quarters are cramped. Pushy people proliferate. And yet, despite the provocations, there is surprisingly little ranting in the streets. According to Cheshire-born, San Francisco-based psychologist and anger management specialist Dr Sylvia Mills, this stems from a Chinese cultural propensity to 'somatise' ire and angst. Mills, who worked in Hong Kong during the 1970s and 80s and returned briefly last week, says: 'More than most Westerners, Chinese people experience their emotions in the form of physical symptoms. If someone is very stressed or angry, they may have bad headaches or weak breathing, aches and pains, no appetite.' People may not be belting each other over the head with rolled-up newspapers in the rush-hour crush or indulging in florid, frothy-mouthed, middle-fingered exchanges in the Cross Harbour Tunnel queue, but that doesn't mean there is not a lot of anger simmering away in the SAR. And unresolved anger, says Mills, can eat away at both body and psyche like a cancer. So how did this soft-spoken doctor with the mop of blonde hair come to be a protector of the peeved? 'I was doing a lot of work on the interface between emotional and physical health, trauma reduction therapy, stress management and the treatment of anxiety and depression, and it sort of grew out of that,' she says. According to Mills, it's not usually big problems that cause anger - people tend to seek help when life's heavy blows fall. Rather, it's the tiny, daily irritants that abound in crowded cities like Hong Kong that provide the grit to abrade tempers. How, then, best to handle anger when it bubbles up and threatens to boil over? Do you let it out in a seismic blast? Jump up and down while uttering phrases that would make a sailor blush? Thump someone? Take a deep breath and count to 10? 'I think it's OK to express anger if you don't do it in an angry way, if you can maintain a reasonable voice, a reasonable manner,' she says. Doesn't that defeat the purpose? 'Not necessarily. What is not OK is to explode in anger. Then, the anger is controlling you. When you look at the number of people involved in physical violence, domestic violence, these kinds of things are very, very prevalent. As many as six out of 10 wives experience physical violence at some point. Some husbands too. 'It's not necessarily a slap or a punch. Sometimes it's a shove, someone gets in the face of the other person and they're blasting verbally from three or four inches away. It's very intimidating. Breaking personal objects. Throwing things. Yelling, screaming, swearing, threatening - even if the threats are never carried out there's always an anticipatory anxiety that they may be carried out,' she says. 'To allow anger to control you, to explode with anger, adrenalin floods your system. Basically the primitive brain takes over, and the thinking, discerning brain is bypassed. Judgement is cast to the wind. So you're likely to behave in ways that are ultimately self-defeating, which will cause you to lose face, to have a bad reputation, to provoke lawsuits or injury or make clouded or poor business decisions.' Mills says adrenalin is a potent drug and eruptions of anger are addictive. She likens outpourings of ire to a river forging its way down a valley. 'Once that gully is formed, every further expression deepens it and makes it more likely that person will have poor control over their anger in the future. There are definitely rage-aholics. And many alcoholics are also rage-aholics, because anger and alcohol disinhibit you. They feed off each other.' One modern manifestation of anger is road rage. Then there's plane rage, train rage, desk rage, hotel rage, surf rage and pavement rage. 'People lose sight of the fact that no matter how pressured their own sense of time is, they have no control over the situation,' she says. 'But rather than resigning themselves to that, they try to fight something that's immutable. I see them every morning coming out of the tunnel from Marin County to San Francisco. You know it's going to be 10 or 15 minutes to get to the toll plaza. And there's nothing you can do about it. But you see people white-knuckling the steering wheel, glancing furiously at their watch. 'If you set off late or you're in a hurry or you didn't expect a queue, you can pound the steering wheel, you can wind the window down and use any combination of fingers you like, nothing makes those cars vanish. There is not going to be a miraculous sort of transformation of the situation, so you may as well think about something good. The old Alcoholics Anonymous serenity prayer that says give me the power to discriminate between the things I can change and the things I can't change, and accept the things I can't change is a very profound piece of advice. 'Things like road rage also stem from displaced rage. Let's say a guy has had a really bad day at work, he feels unjustly treated, and then someone cuts in front of him on the freeway. He can't thump his boss because if he does he'll lose his job. But he can think about thumping the guy in the car in front of him, because it's anonymous. There's no personal relationship involved, it's just a way the rage gets projected on to something external,' she says. 'I think there's a lot of displaced rage in the sense that people are more and more caught in time pressure situations, situations that they're almost a slave to. E-mail, for instance. We didn't have e-mail before. Now e-mail can take 30 minutes to 90 minutes out of a working day. But your workload stays the same.' Mills won't accept that people are hard-wired genetically to be angry but says outgoing, adventure-seeking types may be more prone to rage because they put themselves in stressful situations. 'Anger is primarily something you learn. If you see your father push and yell at your mother, you think this type of behaviour makes you a man and it's OK. Whereas if you've been raised in a home where people can talk through their angry feelings without a loss of temper and you get in a relationship with someone who acts out their anger, it can be very shocking and disconcerting,' she says. Some bosses, she says, use anger in the workplace as a motivational tool - although she disputes the value of this tactic. 'Bosses who shout and thump tables may come from a family where that's how the children were motivated to do things, using the stick not the carrot. It's a very abusive style of management. People will work because they feel intimidated, but they're not going to work productively or as happily as those who feel valued when they go to work.' For budding or full-fledged rage-aholics, Mills recommends jotting down the sources of frustration in their lives. 'Then look at the list and see what you can problem-solve,' she suggests. 'For example, if you're angry about too much noise, buy some earplugs. If there's not enough space, see if there's any stuff you can throw away. If you're dissatisfied in your marriage, sit down and try to get the other person's point of view, or go for counselling. If you've got a boss or co-worker who's a nuisance, see what you can do to accommodate that person without losing face. It may be a matter of minimising contact, or setting things down on paper and saying this is how I see it, you can get back to me later.' Mills also advocates consigning the word 'should' to the mental dustbin. 'If you're over the age of 21, the time for 'shoulds' is over,' she says. 'Every time you think, 'I should do this', you tell yourself 'I can choose to do this, or choose not to'. 'Should' feels like it's coming from above and behind you. It's pushing you. Choosing puts you in charge of your life, you're making your own decisions and taking responsibility for them.' She says exercise is a key for restoring mental and physical equilibrium. 'If you get angry and frustrated, you're producing adrenalin. That's the fight or flight juice. Essentially, you're either trying to catch your dinner or run away and not be someone else's dinner. 'So when you produce a lot of adrenalin, you're going to do what an animal does, which is put all your energy into your muscles and it comes away from your gastrointestinal tract. So you get more digestive tract problems, at both ends. Your hands and feet are chillier because your blood isn't in the extremities, it's in the muscles. Your heart beats a little faster and the blood is carried around the body at higher pressure because you want it pushed through the system fast. When you push blood through arteries at a faster rate, you get more tears in the arterial and venal walls. So there's more likely to be a build-up of cholesterol, which eventually leads to heart disease and stroke.' Exercise, she says, helps metabolise the adrenalin. 'You use it up during physical exercise and afterwards, even though you may feel tired, your body is in a relaxed state. All that toxic stuff is gone. You just need to do something physical. It doesn't have to be on the StairMaster. You can change the plant pots from one end of the balcony to the other, go for a fast walk, anything.' Don't get angry, get breathing.