Do you know someone who honks the horn and swears at any driver who doesn’t notice the green light ‘fast enough’? Or who curses out someone for moving too slowly in the grocery store lineup? We have all seen this or may even be that person, but what of it?
Anger is a universal emotion — we all feel angry at some point. Anger has both a useful side and a harmful one. It can be a trigger to action against injustice or in defense of someone, but it can also inflict something on the angry person: there is research to suggest anger may increase the risk of stroke and heart attack.
Both explosive anger and suppressed rage can be harmful. Too much anger, especially for someone already at risk for heart disease (high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, a smoking habit, obese) can mean a higher likelihood of a cardiovascular event.
But what happens when we get angry? The face becomes flushed, blood pressure rises and muscles tense. All of these are reactions to the spike of stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, in our bloodstream. They speed up heart rate and breathing and boost energy. Blood vessels tighten and we ready for ‘fight or flight.’ That’s great if we are facing an emergency, but not so much if the reason is more mundane, like that slow driver.
Over time, chronic anger can cause long-term damage to the heart. The increased adrenaline and cortisol levels raise blood pressure and cause the heart to work harder. Increased blood pressure and blood flow can also damage the lining of arteries and cause a buildup of fatty plaques. Add these to existing risk factors for heart disease and the result could be very serious.
Research into heart health suggests that people who anger often are more likely to have coronary heart disease, including heart attacks. Indeed, even a single angry outburst can have detrimental effects.
A study published in the European Heart Journal in 2014 found that the risk of a heart attack was five times higher in the two hours after an anger outburst; stroke risk jumped by four times. The study which included more than 300 Australian patients hospitalize due to heart attacks, found that the risk of heart attack is 8.5 times higher in the two hours after an acute episode of anger. It found that the patients’ levels of anger or anxiety preceding the heart attack were significantly higher at hospitalization for a heart attack than on the previous day.
While there is no hard scientific proof that anger treatment or therapy will prevent a heart attack, finding ways to reduce the incidence of anger can only help. One step to take is analytical: What is it that made me angry? Why did I react that way? You might ask yourself if this will matter in five years? How about in five minutes?
Try to understand that blaming others will not accomplish anything, even if they are responsible for the problem. A good strategy is to hold off your reaction. For example, “if I am still angry about this tomorrow, I will deal with it then.”
Meditation, yoga and tai chi can all contribute to better life balance and may reduce levels of anger, but perhaps the best advice comes from Bart Simpson, that spiky-haired cartoon character, who advises us: “Don’t have a cow, man!”
Written by Dr. Paul Martiquet, Medical Health Officer for Rural Vancouver Coastal Health including Powell River, the Sunshine Coast, Sea-to-Sky, Bella Bella and Bella Coola.