Can anger harm your heart?

Research has found that in the hour before a heart attack, people are more than twice as likely to experience intense emotional upset or anger than during the same period the previous day. 

To investigate this further, 280 healthy adults aged between 20 and 30 years were asked to spend 8 minutes recalling memories that made them feel angry. Thereafter, they sat quietly in a chair and allowed their anger to subside. Before and after the anger-inducing activity, the scientists measured the health of participants’ endothelial cells — the cells that line the internal walls of our blood vessels. After feeling angry, the endothelial cells had a reduced capacity to dilate, which is associated with an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. The effect persisted for up to 40 minutes. 

How does anger exert this effect? 

There are several proposed mechanisms. Anger activates our sympathetic nervous system (the fright, flight, fight pathway), which is part of our stress response. Stress is a key driver and exacerbating factor for all diseases, not just heart attacks and strokes. Anger also appears to reduce the availability of nitric oxide, a compound that helps blood vessels to relax. 

The critical point is that emotions are a physical force that exerts a measurable effect on our body — either positive or negative — depending on the emotion. However, this is NOT to advocate suppressing our negative emotions. As early as 1985, a study of 1350 Yugoslavian residents revealed that ‘throttling their emotions’ was a predictor of developing cancer. In 1994, Grace Gawler, in her book Women of Silence, documented that remaining silent about our feelings was a risk factor for breast cancer. Most damaging of all is the combination of ‘cynical distrust of other people’ and ‘strangled hostility’. When we close ourselves off from others, and push down feelings of injustice, it hardens our arteries, weakens our immune system and predisposes us to heart disease, infections and cancer.

So what are we to do when we feel anger or distressing emotions? Firstly, remove yourself as quickly as possible from the situation causing distress. If your anger is the result of a conversation, argument or memory, bring your attention to your breathing. Slow down and deepen your breaths. Then become aware of the feeling in your body. Do you feel it in your throat, chest or belly? Simply sit with the emotion and allow it to run its course. Don’t dwell on the situation. Simply feel, and recognise that our feelings occur for a reason — to give us feedback about something or to guide us along a particular path. Painful feelings grab our attention. Negative feelings are not intrinsically negative — they are signals to stop what we’re doing and assess what is happening, or to slow down and simply feel. If something needs to be done, it will reveal itself during the process of feeling. Oftentimes all that is needed is to feel the feeling. The sooner we acknowledge how we feel, without getting caught up in the drama that caused it, the sooner it will dissipate and the less damage it will do. One bout of anger does not cause a heart attack. Repeated episodes of intense negative emotions are what chip away at our health until the final straw breaks us.

Holding on to our emotions by denying them, stuffing them down with food or continually ruminating on painful events is what causes the damage, not feeling the emotion and thereby allowing it to evaporate.

In the words of Nayyirah Waheed, ‘Grieve. So that you can be free to feel something else.’

If you’d like to learn more about this subject, I write about it in my book, NeuroSlimming — Let your brain change your body.

Photo credit: I took this photo during my recent book promotion tour in the beautiful city of Minneapolis, USA. It’s a painting by the late North American artist Keith Haring, on display at the Walker Art Center.

Please share this Health-e-Byte with anyone who wants to improve their heart health.

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