Anger is something we all experience.
But are we aware of the link between anger and heart disease?
I don't get angry very often, but on the day of my heart event I was quite upset with my husband for some trivial little thing that I barely remember now. I have no idea whether it contributed to the timing of my event - or if I got angry because I wasn't wasn't well and was feeling out of sorts - plus I was stressed at work and in a state of exhaustion.
I'll never know. But the association between negative emotional states such as anger and heart disease has been identified in numerous scientific studies. How these negative emotions play a part in causing heart disease is not completely understood but it is clear there is a mind - body connection.
Anger and Heart Attacks
In The Emotional Wellness Way to Cardiac Health, a study on the role of anger found that among 1,600 patients who had previously suffered a heart attack, the risk of another heart attack after an episode of anger was increased by 200 percent.
A Harvard-based study, found that one in every 40 heart attack survivors reported an “episode of anger” in the two hours before the attack.
A Johns Hopkins School of Medicine study, which tracked 1,337 male medical students for 36 years following medical school, found that students who became angry quickly under stress were three times more likely to develop premature heart disease and five times more likely to have an early heart attack.
"If you’re mad at the world and you have a family history of heart disease, you’re loading the bullets in the gun and pulling the trigger at an early age without realizing it," says Jerry Kiffer, M.A., psychology assistant in the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology and manager of the Psychological Testing Center at The Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. "People with a strong family history need to recognize that anger can be a strong risk factor. In fact, some research has shown that it can be just as much of a risk factor for heart disease as smoking, obesity, and lack of exercise." Kiffer further noted that when you get angry, your body releases cholesterol and an array of chemicals called catecholamines into your blood stream.
Research has shown that these chemicals actually speed the development of fatty deposits in the heart and carotid arteries.
Researchers have also found otherwise healthy people who are prone to anger, hostility, and depression have higher levels of a substance linked to narrowing of the arteries and future heart disease risk called C-reactive protein (CRP). This protein is released in the body in response to the inflammation caused by stress, infection, and other threats to the immune system. (WebMD) Suarez, E. Psychosomatic Medicine, September 2004; vol 66.
Increased Risks if you have Heart Disease
Everyone gets upset from time-to-time. Negative emotions are part of life. The difference is how often, for how long, and how intensely do you get your knickers in a knot? Is it a normal reaction to the situation? Or do you experience uncontrollable or toxic rage that is unreasonable for the situation. Do you lash out with aggressive emotional or physical behavior?
Persistent anger can increase your risk of heart disease or increase your risk for further problems if you already have heart disease.
In The Emotional Wellness Way to Cardiac Health, a study is cited that shows that among a group of 3,750 men aged 40 - 59, high levels of irritability and quickness to anger were significantly related to increased mortality for those with pre-existing heart disease.
In another study, those with high hostility were found to be two and a half times more likely to re-block after an angioplasty.
Add in other risk factors such as smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and the risks are even greater.
Experiencing negative emotions can lead people to turn to increased smoking, drinking, and overeating "comfort foods" that are high in fat, in an attempt to cope. This in turn increases one's risk.
What can you do to prevent the effects of anger and heart disease?
Just as with anything, awareness is the first step. Admitting to yourself that you’re chronically worried, stressed, sad, or angry is hard. Telling someone else, like your doctor, is even harder. But it’s an important first step.
Then there are lots of things you can do.
Manage and control your emotions Ideally the best solution is to not get angry in the first place but we're human and it's not realistic to attempt to eliminate negative emotions. Rather, we need to learn to manage and control our emotions more effectively, and to bring them into balance with our positive emotions.
Be aware of the things that are going to anger you and, if possible, walk away from the situation.
Learn to recognize the signs that you are getting angry and take a time out by counting to 10 before responding or exploding.
Keep perspective. Years ago I saw a man wearing a t-shirt in Hawaii that said on the front, "Don't sweat the small stuff." On the back it said, "It's almost all small stuff." Many of us take life too seriously. Lots of things in life, although important, are not matters of life and death - and are, therefore, small stuff.
Control what you can. If you are stressed and pressured by too many demands, learn to say no. Keep your private time - private. Turn off your cell and don't check your email. Unless it's an emergency, work can wait until the next workday. If you have people or situations in your life that cause you grief, make some changes or, if that's not possible, limit your exposure to them.
Consider therapy. Some people can learn to manage anger on their own. Others need therapy or behavior modification programs. Counseling and anger management classes can help the chronically angry. You can’t control how other people behave, but you can learn — through counseling — how to respond more effectively to high-stress situations.
Live a smart heart lifestyle. People who are chronically enraged and stressed are more likely to have other heart-damaging habits, such as smoking, excessive drinking, and an unhealthy diet. If this is you, you will need to take steps to change your lifestyle.
How has anger and heart disease impacted your life? What strategies have helped you? Share them with us.