This is a very informative article, combining our modern scientific viewpoints of anger, stress reactions, emotional responses, addictive patterns and more. It also details the consequences of how these mechanisms lead to the modern scourge of heart disease.
Yet, from a more psychological point of view, it does not stress highly enough the differences in the way our emotional intelligence operates, except with the comment “And what we see is that the latter group can sometimes be healthier” indicating those who are able to handle anger appropriately by processing it consciously and expressing it meaningfully. In other words, the answer to the “anger causes heart attacks” argument is not bottling up and showing no anger, but learning how to process it and express it appropriately – consciously.
IT’S official — anger is bad for your health. A study in European Heart Journal by the Harvard School of Public Health warns that angry episodes can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
According to researchers, in the two hours immediately after an outburst, risk of heart attack increased nearly fivefold and risk of stroke increased more than threefold.
From the school run to the supermarket, it seems everywhere everyone is on a short fuse. Dr Sarah Brewer, a British GP and the author of Cut Your Stress, sees this as a big problem. “It affects relationships at home and at work, and your ability to improve the situation you find yourself in. It makes you less able to find a good way out of your problems.”
Surely, feeling a bit short-tempered doesn’t carry the same health risks as full-on Incredible Hulk-style histrionics? If you simmer, but never boil, surely that keeps your heart whole?
Not at all, says Nerina Ramlakhan, a neurophysiologist at Capio Nightingale Hospital in London, where she treats clients with chronic fatigue, sleep problems, mental burnout and stress.
“We used to divide people into two types: A and B. The As — driven, aggressive — were associated with anger and heart attacks or stroke. The Bs were calmer and, we thought, healthier. But now we separate people differently into those who hold rage in and those who express it out.
“And what we see is that the latter group can sometimes be healthier. They may flare up, but this allows their body to recover from the physical stress of getting angry. Those who hold on to their rage are keeping their bodies flooded with hormones unnaturally and setting up a host of long-term problems from weight gain and depression to chronic fatigue and increased risk of stroke.”
This may explain why the Harvard report suggested that those who were constantly on edge were at greater cumulative risk of a heart attack.
When we get angry or annoyed, explains Dr Ramlakhan, our body is undergoing the “fight or flight” response to a stimulus it perceives as dangerous. We experience a hormonal surge: adrenalin, which puts our body into a state of arousal; and cortisol, which dampens down our immune system and helps conversion of stored fat to fuel. Minutes after the perceived threat passes, our bodies return to normal function.
However, if we stay angry and irate that cascade of hormones keeps being produced with no end in sight, leaving us exhausted. Our immune systems stay depressed so that we are more at risk of disease.
Too much adrenalin blocks the production of the “happy” hormone serotonin, so we start to suffer depression and mood swings, which can contribute to more anger.
We may self-medicate with food or alcohol or have a cigarette. We feel unreasonably tired. This could be due in part to the body tensing for potential action.
Research published online last month by the Society for Neuroscience showed that the biceps, deltoids and triceps in our arms are prepped by the brain to be on standby when we feel angry or antagonised.
What are the early indicators that your anger is at damaging levels?
“You feel sick and anxious, and can’t eat,” Dr Ramlakhan says. “Your energy is either super high or rock bottom, especially in the late afternoon, so you rely on caffeine to keep you going. You may get ill 24 to 48 hours after going on holiday, which is when the effects of adrenalin start to wear off, which may have been masking a poor immune system, leaving your weary body more vulnerable to viruses and illness.
“You may also constantly check your phone for messages or emails or your Facebook. This is because your body has started to get a hit of an endorphin called dopamine; your body is rewarding you every time you read a message because it is learning to associate new hits of social media with pleasure or stimulation.” She adds: “So many people are running on an ‘anger cocktail’ of adrenalin, cortisol, dopamine and caffeine.”
Jay Brewer, the head of physiology at Nuffield Health points out that our heart rates become measurably more “metronomic” when we are stressed. “Healthy hearts beat with a degree of variability, but when we are angry or roused that beat becomes more rhythmic. It happens during labour, as a woman gets closer to giving birth and her body is working harder.
“Heart Rate Variability can be used, after a heart attack, as a way to predict how likely a second attack is.” Lower HRV may also indicate depression.
Dr Ramlakhan adds: “Perhaps you don’t realise you’re cross, but interpret your feelings as anxiety. Unfortunately, your body will be going through the same processes.”
Weight gain around the abdomen, for example, can occur, even when we are not aware that we are troubled.
Jay Brewer explains: “Our fat cells around the abdomen are very efficient and use cortisol
efficiently to make them more lipogenic or attractive to fat. They then absorb any fat in the bloodstream and expand like never-ending balloons.”
Meanwhile, he adds, fat cells naturally release inflammatory markers that are important in helping our immune systems to function. But if we start releasing too many, these markers can contribute to inflammation that can damage arteries and also contributes to the mutations in cells, which lead to cancer.
Happily, Dr Ramlakhan says, the solution to debilitating anger is not that complicated. “There are huge amounts of research to suggest when we produce oxytocin — the ‘cuddle hormone’ — it can reverse the damaging effects of too much adrenalin and cortisol. Oxytocin stops fat from sticking to blood vessels, reduces production of free radical cells, and acts as a vasodilator, allowing blood pressure to fall, and leaving us floppy and relaxed.
“And we produce oxytocin easily — it happens when we fall in love, give birth or if we see our team score. We produce it when we feel grateful, blessed or full of joy. We just have to laugh more and be kinder.”