If you knew that repeated anger may increase your risk of heart disease significantly, would you still blow off steam by shouting and breaking things during an argument or getting furious if traffic comes to a dead stop while on your way to an important meeting?
It’s time for hot heads to pay heed: increasingly, the negative, irritable, raging and intimidating personality type concerns heart researchers and doctors alike. “You’re talking about people who seem to experience high levels of anger very frequently,” states Laura Kubzansky, PhD, MPH, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health in Cambridge, MA, who has evaluated the role of stress and emotions on cardiovascular disease.
The key word here is “high” levels. Moderate levels of anger might not be the problem, according to Kubzansky. In fact, displaying anger in reasonable ways can be beneficial. “Being able to tell people that you’re angry can be extremely functional,” she says. But explosive people who throw objects or yell at others might be at a higher risk for heart disease, as well as those who harbor suppressed rage. Either side of the spectrum can be problematic.
Anger’s Physiological Effects on the Heart
So how does anger contribute to heart disease? Researchers don’t know for sure, but anger may produce direct physiological effects on the heart and arteries. Emotions like anger and hostility rapidly trigger the “fight or flight response,” in which stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, increase your heart rate and breathing and give you a burst of energy. Blood pressure also increases as your blood vessels constrict.
While this stress response mobilizes you for emergencies, it may do harm if triggered repeatedly. “You get high cortisol and high adrenaline levels and that is the cardiotoxic effect of anger expression,” states Jerry Kiffer, MA, a heart-brain researcher at the Cleveland Clinic’s Psychological Testing Center. “It causes wear and tear on the heart and cardiovascular system.” Consistent anger may fasten the process of artherosclerosis, in which fatty plaques collect in arteries, Kiffer says. The heart pumps harder, blood vessels constrict, blood pressure increases, and there are higher levels of glucose in the blood and more fat globules in the blood vessels. All of this, scientists propose, is capable of causing damage to artery walls.
And anger might not be the only culprit. In Kubzansky’s own research, she discovered that increased levels of depression and anxiety might add to the risk of heart disease as well. “They tend to co-occur,” she states. ”People who are angry a lot tend to have other chronic negative emotions as well.”
The Heart and Emotions
According to an analysis of data from 44 studies released last year in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the findings support the connection between emotions and heart disease. To be more detailed, anger and hostility are greatly linked with more heart problems in initially healthy people, as well as a worse outcome for patients already diagnosed with heart disease.
The same study also demonstrated that chronically angry or hostile adults with no history of heart problems may be 19% more likely than their calmer peers to develop heart disease. The researchers found that hanger and hostility seemed to do more damage to men’s hearts than women’s. Among patients already diagnosed with heart disease, those with angry or hostile temperaments were 24% more prone than other heart patients to have a poor prognosis.
In the wake of such findings, some physicians now consider anger a heart disease risk factor that can be altered, just as people can decrease their cholesterol or blood pressure. “We’re really good at treating heart attacks, but we’re not that good at preventing them,” states Holly S. Andersen, MD, cardiologist and director of education and outreach at the Ronald O. Perelman Heart Institute at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “Stress is not as easy to measure as your cholesterol level or your blood pressure, which are clearly objective. But it’s really important that physicians start taking care of the whole person — including their moods and their lives — because it matters.” The bottom line: “A change of mind can lead to a change of heart,” Kiffer says.
Dealing with Anger
Got a quick-trigger temper? Counseling and anger management courses may help in the long run, but what can you do for a quick fix?
Identifying sings of anger and changing your frame of mind will help, says Wayne Sotile, PhD, author of Thriving with Heart Disease. The next time you feel your anger – and heart rate – rising, try these coping statements to get a quick grip:
- “Nothing can be accomplished by blaming others, even if they are at fault. I’ll try a different angle.”
- “Will this be important five years from now?”
- “If I’m still angry about this tomorrow, I’ll deal with it then. For now, I’m just going to cool off. “
- “Acting angry is not the same as showing I care.”
REFERENCE: Katherine Kam (2010) How Anger Hurts your Heart Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/features/how-anger-hurts-your-heart?ecd=wnl_hyp_012810