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The Physical Toll of Anger: Keeping Our Hearts in Mind

March 8, 2010

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned”.

We all have good reasons to feel angry sometimes, and many of us are very skilled at justifying our angry feelings. Regardless of why we get angry, whether we take responsibility for our feelings or pass it on to others, feelings of anger can be physically damaging to our hearts. While we may be aware of how angry feelings can affect our mood and our interactions with others, we don’t usually focus much on the physical toll of anger.

The connection between stress and heart disease is widely known, but there is also evidence linking high levels of anger and hostility to various types of heart problems such as increased hypertension, atrial fibrillation, coronary artery disease and heart failure. In otherwise healthy people, high levels of anger and hostility have been associated with increased risk of developing coronary artery disease and heart attacks, especially among men. Angry patients with existing heart problems appear to be more likely to have poorer prognoses.

Chronic anger appears to be the most damaging, since the body is exposed to stress hormones for extended periods of time which may speed up the development of arteriosclerosis. However, intense bursts of anger and rage have also been linked to higher risks of heart attacks and strokes. Suppression of angry feelings appears to be related to higher incidences of coronary heart disease, especially among women. Studies also suggest that depressed women are at an increased risk of cardiac problems including cardiac death. Other research is exploring the relationship between anger and the body’s ability to heal, with results suggesting that not managing anger well may be associated with slower healing and may compromise the body’s immune response.

While people are generally aware of the various risks factors for heart disease, anger and depression are frequently overlooked as contributing variables. We know that anger can trigger the body’s stress response with its surge of adrenaline and cortisol, raising of heart rate and constricting of blood vessels, but a lot more research is needed to understand the mechanisms by which negative emotions are linked to higher incidences of heart disease and heart related death. We know, however, that psychological interventions may significantly decrease the risk of cardiac events.

To live a heart-healthier and happier life, here are some tips for managing anger:

  • Learn to identify your “anger style.” Explore how you tend to react when you feel angry (e.g. withdraw, blame, attack, problem-solve, use sarcasm, etc.)
  • Reflect and try to understand where you learned your style of response.
  • Learn to identify signs of increased physical tension. Take steps to reduce it (breathing exercises, meditation, time-out, exercise, etc.)
  • Learn to recognize situations that trigger your anger. Keeping an anger log might help. Assess whether some of these can be changed.
  • Learn to identify the thoughts that make you feel angry. If you can, try to change your perception (are there any other ways to look at this situation?) or perspective (will this matter in a month or a year?)
  • Learn to identify the underlying feelings beneath the anger (e.g. fear, disappointment, hurt, anxiety, etc.)
  • Learn to recognize your needs and to identify what you want (e.g. more attention, more help, more closeness, etc.)
  • Learn to communicate your feelings and needs in a calm but assertive way.
  • Learn to problem solve effectively so that you can change, when possible, situations that previously made you feel angry and frustrated.
  • Learn to accept that you may not have control over some situations that trigger your anger, but you may still be able to manage your anger by changing your perceptions, reactions and responses to them.
  • Paying attention to our anger, understanding its components and learning to deal with it in constructive ways will help decrease the high emotional and physical toll of anger. Our minds and our hearts will benefit from it.

Pilar Poal, PhD is a licensed psychologist and Senior Staff Therapist at Council for Relationships. She can be reached at 610-594-9808 ext. 6.