How Anger Affects Your Heart

Your typical reaction to stressful situations could predict your risk for a heart attack.

Do rude and reckless drivers make your blood boil? Are you infuriated by poor service at a restaurant? Do you yell or swear when your team fumbles the ball? Your typical reaction to situations like these could predict your risk for a heart attack. 

Many scientific studies, including one by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, show a direct connection between high levels of anger and heart disease. The Hopkins study of more than 1,300 male medical students found that those who were quick to anger were three times more likely to develop premature heart disease and five times more likely to have an early heart attack than those who reacted more calmly in stressful situations. Similar studies suggest the same is true for quick-tempered women and older men as well.

Exactly how anger increases your heart attack risk is not known. But research suggests that anger releases harmful stress hormones, increases oxygen demand by the heart's muscle cells and increases the stickiness of blood platelets, which can lead to blood clots. A recent study in Italy shows that those who had high scores for antagonistic traits such as anger had more thickening of the carotid arteries, which are the two main arteries that supply oxygen-rich blood to the head and brain. Thickened carotid arteries are a risk factor for heart attack and stroke.

For those already at risk for heart disease, anger also affects the electrical function of the heart, according to a study led by a Yale University cardiologist. This is because anger can cause an arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, in vulnerable individuals. When the heart’s electrical system is thrown off balance, the heart can beat in a very irregular pattern—this is what happens in a heart attack. The heart is unable to circulate blood throughout the body, and cannot support a blood pressure. In such cases, a device called a defibrillator is needed to deliver a quick shock to the heart to restore rhythm.

Fortunately, you can learn ways to control your anger and protect your heart. Gaining control of your anger will also benefit your personal and professional relationships and help you get more enjoyment out of life.

So, instead of letting your rage build up inside, try to explain your feelings to someone you trust. Getting regular physical exercise also helps release tension that can escalate into anger. And you may find meditation and deep breathing exercises to be helpful coping mechanisms for your temper. No matter how tempting, never rely on nicotine or an excessive amount of alcohol to calm you down; they won’t help your anger and they will hurt your heart.

Writing your feelings out in a journal may help you to understand why you are so likely to lose your temper. Once you are aware of what is making you angry, you can learn to change your behavior before you have an outburst. Train yourself to recognize the signs of stress, and stop yourself before your anger gets out of control. Then wait a few seconds and try to express your feeling calmly, without raising your voice. If you find you are having trouble doing it on your own, don’t despair. Individual counseling or anger management classes could the right choice for you.

If controlling your anger is a frequent challenge, you may want to ask your doctor about taking a daily aspirin. Research shows that aspirin reduces the stickiness of blood platelets and may moderately reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.

For tips on managing your stress, click here. If you would like a free DVD on mindfulness and relaxation, call (517) 788-4800, ext 7537.

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