Explosive Anger Causes Heart Attacks

July 9, 2014 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

How do you feel when you’re cut off in traffic or someone pushes their way to the front of a line you’re in? You get angry, right? That’s only natural. But then what? Do you let go of the anger and move on? Or do you make a scene, letting the anger get the best of you?

If you have a tendency to explode when things aren’t going your way, you’re damaging your heart and setting the stage for heart disease.

More than fifty years ago, psychologists introduced the idea of Type A and B personalities. Competitive, angry, impatient, and aggressive, Type A is the polar opposite of laid back, carefree Type B.

Research showed that although Type A people get things done, they risk their own health in the process. Their rush to do too much, for example, makes Type A people accident-prone.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg!

Scientists discovered that the Type A tendency to combine overachievement and perfectionism with rage led to heart disease, something rare among Type B people.

Now researchers are focusing on anger alone as the defining factor in Type A health issues. In other words, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with being goal-driven or successful, as long as explosive anger (for example, shouting or throwing things) isn’t involved.

Because when anger enters the picture, even briefly, risk of heart attack or other heart-related event, such as a stroke, goes up.

And that’s not all – angry outbursts are linked to an increase in blood “stickiness,” which causes clots. Anger is also connected to inflammation, a factor in nearly all serious diseases.

A study from Harvard Medical School, for example, reviewed eighteen previous clinical trials focusing on angry outbursts and heart attacks. The researchers found that all studies showed a higher rate of heart-related events in the two-hour window following an angry outburst.

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In addition, a clinical trial, reported in American Journal of Cardiology, found that the risk of experiencing a heart attack actually doubled after an angry outburst. And the more intense the anger, the greater the risk that a heart attack will follow.

There are many other studies like these, supporting the link between anger and heart problems. If you’re prone to anger, there are steps you can take to change that.

Anger is a natural response to certain situations. Holding it in or pretending you’re not angry is not helpful. But neither is blowing your top. It’s okay to say you’re upset or that something is making you angry, as long as it’s done politely, in a way that doesn’t hurt others. That may take some practice. In the meantime, these tools can help.

Mindfulness Meditation: An approach that stresses awareness and living in the present, mindfulness is an easy-to-learn type of meditation that you can practice anywhere – while driving, standing in line at the supermarket, or whenever you feel stressed or in danger of exploding. Mindfulness has repeatedly shown emotional and health benefits in clinical trials, and is useful for keeping a lid on anger.  To learn more, simply look up “mindfulness meditation” with your favorite search engine.

Exercise: Stressed at work? Take a hike! German researchers found that certain Type A employees who were under intense job strain were likely to have high levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker for inflammation.  But moderate physical activity eliminated the problem.

Deep breathing: Next time you feel your anger might get out of control, stop and take one deep breath, then another, breathing in through your nose and blowing the air out forcefully through your mouth, like a big sigh. Put one hand on your upper stomach, to make certain your diaphragm is expanding, and you’re not just puffing up your chest. That way, your lungs can take in more air and you can release anger when you exhale.

Forest therapy: The nature therapy movement isn’t as big here as it is in Asia, but studies there show that spending some time in the great outdoors can lower blood pressure, and ease symptoms of depression, anxiety, and anger. Research has also shown that forest therapy increases the activity and number of natural killer cells and anticancer proteins, two things that could save your life. My recommendation: try connecting with nature several times a week.

Finally, studies have repeatedly shown that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) takes the edge off anger. CBT is a popular, effective method of modifying your thoughts to change feelings and behavior. CBT is easy to learn and has a good success rate. So if you find anger is getting in the way of relationships or holding you back in the workplace, it’s worth investigating.

One last thought – from talking to patients, I’ve discovered that angry outbursts often follow a night of sleep problems.  If that’s the case, try melatonin, a safe, natural sleep aid that can help you get the rest you need without leaving you drowsy the next day.

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