One investigation** studied 2,334 pre-hypertensive adult Americans over an eight-year period and found that men with anger-prone personalities were 71% more likely than their more relaxed peers to develop full-blown high blood pressure. And their risk of heart disease was nearly twice as high.
Several recent studies have found, too, that the likely culprit raising coronary artery disease in some “Type A” personalities was not their hard-working nature, as previously thought. It was their angry and/or hostile temperaments.
Negative Thoughts, Negative Actions
Exactly how anger and other stressful emotions harm the heart is a question of particular interest to researchers. Many believe that there are two likely pathways.
One is behavioral. People who frequently get angry tend to adopt poor eating habits, smoke more, and are less likely to exercise – each of which can lead to heart problems. Hostile individuals are also less likely to build good social support or enjoy the lighter, more humorous side of life, two behaviors linked with enhanced wellness.
Fight or Flight Response
Anger and other negative emotions like hostility, resentment, anxiety, and worry can also harm the heart by triggering hormonal and other physiological changes in the body. Known as the “Fight or Flight Response,” these changes elevate our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, metabolism, and muscle tension, and release glucose to increase energy.
If you need to fight tigers or flee from muggers, the “Fight or Flight Response” is perfect, just what we need for emergency situations.
But many of us are in an almost constant state of Fight or Flight. That’s because angry, fearful, and anxious thoughts elicit the same changes in our bodies that actions, like escaping from a burning building, would.
To illustrate: Try to recall something that made you really angry.
Now close your eyes.
For a minute or two, imagine that angry event as vividly as possible, and notice how your body feels.
Has your breathing changed? What’s happened to your heart rate? Most of us feel sensations that are very different from how we felt just moments ago. We’re being attacked, not by a mugger, but by our angry thoughts. Regardless of the origin of stress, our bodies rev up for emergency action.
Over time, this constant inner churning, without the physical release that fighting or fleeing would provide, can take a terrible toll.
Continued activation of the Fight or Flight Response can destroy the body’s resistance to cancer, infections, and illness through its negative effect on the immune system. It can also cause infertility and sexual dysfunction, exacerbate diabetes, initiate hypoglycemia, deposit cholesterol in blood vessels, accelerate heart rate, increase blood pressure, and thicken blood so it clots more readily, which makes you more prone to suffering a heart attack or stroke.
Sure, some events in life – the loss of loved one, the loss of a job – are difficult for everyone to handle.
But many of us get our blood boiling over hundreds of other things that just aren’t worth it.
The really heartening news is that there’s much we can do to minimize these eruptions and, in doing so, calm both body and mind. “From a mental health perspective, there may be nothing more important for protecting health and preserving peace of mind,” states behavioral psychologist Coral Arvon, PhD, who teaches healthy mind classes at the Pritikin Longevity Center, an internationally renowned health and weight-loss resort in Miami, Florida.
Healthy Mind, Healthy Body
“When our minds are positive and relaxed, we’re better able to adopt healthier lifestyles. We make healthier food choices, for example, and we exercise more regularly,” explains Dr. Arvon.
Last but not least, learning to decrease the frequency with which you experience anger can benefit not only you but everyone around you. With a little work on this difficult emotion, your body and your relationships can start healing.
What Makes Us Angry
Most people incorrectly believe that other people and events make them angry, locating the cause of anger outside themselves.
The truth is that our beliefs and assumptions create anger. We may not like a particular behavior of our partner, friend, child, or colleague, but it is our interpretation of that behavior rather than the behavior itself that determines how we feel.
Below are just three of the many assumptions that can trigger anger as surely as a red flag provokes a bull. But if we think about them, we can see that they are not based on fact or experience.
If we don’t add these assumptions to behaviors and events, we may be displeased or disappointed, but we can remain calm and assess situations rationally.
Assumption #1: Life should be fair.
Fact: We know that bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. Yes, life should be fair, but we all know it’s often not.
Assumption #2: We can control the behavior of others.
Fact: It’s hard enough to control our own behavior, for example, eating right, exercising, and quitting smoking. Have you ever successfully coerced an unwilling partner into changing his or her habits?
Assumption #3: People who hurt us should be punished.
Fact: An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Do you really believe that doling out punishment improves the quality of your life or relationships? Experience and wisdom tells us that:
- Many people who hurt our feelings do so out of lack of social skills or self-esteem, which merits sympathy, not rage; and
- In the all-too-common case of divorce, if you feel wronged, don’t wish your partner ill, wish yourself well! As novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “Living well is the best revenge.” So make your own life wonderful instead of making someone else’s miserable.
How To Free Ourselves From Chronic Anger | 9 Key Steps
Step 1 | Anger Management
Identify recurring situations that trigger your anger.
Step 2 | Anger Management
Challenge trigger thoughts.
Replace trigger thoughts (“She should have tried harder”) with coping statements (“Other people are not obligated to meet my expectations”). Make up your own coping statements for situations that tend to anger you and substitute them for your usual inflammatory self-talk.
For example, if you always get annoyed with your spouse because he does not like to discuss disagreements right away, say to yourself, “He needs some time to relax and calm down. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t care. We can talk about it later today.”
Step 3 | Anger Management
Practice stress management techniques.
A stressed person is more likely to lose control in an emotionally-charged exchange. Practice relaxation using techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing, taught at Pritikin. They can elicit what Dr. Herbert Benson, Professor of Medicine at Harvard University and Director of the Mind Body Institute in Massachusetts, named the “Relaxation Response.”
Achieving a state of relaxation combats the effects of the Fight or Flight Response. The Relaxation Response has been scientifically documented to dramatically decrease heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and muscle tension.
New to this? To get started, here is one simple method:
Find a quiet place.
Then, sit down and close your eyes for about 10 minutes. Take deep long diaphragmatic (from the belly) breaths.
You can also practice diaphragmatic breathing using the word “calm” on the in breath, and “relaxed” on the out breath. Six to eight breaths a minute, practiced for a total of 10 minutes, will very likely get you into the relaxation zone.
Do this twice a day, and frequent anger could become a thing of the past.
Step 4 | Anger Management
Learn to resolve rather than escalate conflicts.
Use kind, clear communication. In conflicts, don’t treat loved ones and friends like the enemy. Remember the many reasons you love them, and don’t say anything you wouldn’t want said to you.
Avoid judgments (“You’re playing the victim”) and labels (“You’re stupid”) because they refer to the person, not the behaviors that distress you.
Another tip: Don’t bring the past into the present. Are you an “injustice collector,” someone who remembers every hurt or disappointment?
Instead, stay in the moment. Don’t bring up ancient history or other unrelated complaints when you’re angry or displeased.
Dealing with the moment – and only the moment – will reduce your anger and pain. It will also make it easier for your loved one to really hear and consider your current problem.
Step 5 | Anger Management
Take a timeout.
If you are involved in a discussion that is turning into a shouting match, remove yourself from the situation for five minutes or as long as you and your partner need to calm down and diffuse anger. Just make sure to communicate what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
And always keep your word that “we’ll finish this conversation later.”
Step 6 | Anger Management
Presuming to know someone else’s feelings or motivations leads to misunderstanding and is disrespectful. No matter how close you are, you can’t know everything about someone else.
Step 7 | Anger Management
Acquire assertiveness skills.
People who are assertive ask for what they want, set limits, express their opinions, and feel in control. Assertive people are less angry people because they are taking care of themselves.
Learn the difference between passivity, passive-aggression, aggression, and assertion.
Passive people don’t ask for what they need and may not even know themselves well enough to identify what they need.
Passive-aggressive people act as if they don’t have needs; they don’t get mad, they get even!
Aggressive people are disliked and/or ignored.
Only healthy assertion reduces anger.
Step 8 | Anger Management
Problem-solve at work and at home.
Conflict is best resolved through rational discussions of options. With family or colleagues, list a variety of solutions to problems without pre-judging people or problems. Together, discuss the pros and cons of each solution.
Given the choices, select the course of action that you all agree is best.
Step 9 | Anger Management
Practice taking the other person’s point of view.
Empathy and understanding are potent antidotes to anger. Plus, they enhance the quality of your relationships.
A New Life
“Gain knowledge of these skills, practice them, and gain control of your anger,” encourages Dr. Arvon “The next time you see red, don’t charge ahead with passion. Instead, sit down with your thoughts. Breathe. Think about consequences.”
And consider the belief of many mental health professionals and philosophers, expressed so eloquently by the Dalai Lama: “Taming the mind is the most important task of one’s life.”