If you knew that frequent anger might raise your risk of heart disease significantly, would you continue to blow off steam by yelling and smashing things during an argument or getting furious if the office email crashes during a rushed, stressful day?
It's time for hot heads to take heed: Increasingly, the negative, irritable, raging, and intimidating personality type worries heart researchers and doctors alike. "You're talking about people who seem to experience high levels of anger very frequently," says Laura Kubzansky, PhD, MPH, an associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health in Cambridge, Mass., who has studied the role of stress and emotions on cardiovascular disease.
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The key here is "high" levels. Moderate anger may not be the problem, according to Kubzansky. In fact, expressing anger in reasonable ways can be healthy. "Being able to tell people that you're angry can be extremely functional," she says. But explosive people who hurl objects or scream at others may be at greater risk for heart disease, as well as those who harbor suppressed rage, she says. "Either end of the continuum is problematic."
Anger's Physiological Effects on the Heart
So how exactly does anger contribute to heart disease? Scientists don't know for sure, but anger might produce direct physiological effects on the heart and arteries. Emotions such as anger and hostility quickly activate the "fight or flight response," in which stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, speed up your heart rate and breathing and give you a burst of energy. Blood pressure also rises as your blood vessels constrict.
While this stress response mobilizes you for emergencies, it might cause harm if activated repeatedly. "You get high cortisol and high adrenaline levels and that is the cardiotoxic effect of anger expression," says Jerry Kiffer, MA, a heart-brain researcher at the Cleveland Clinic's Psychological Testing Center. "It causes wear and tear on the heart and cardiovascular system." Frequent anger may speed up the process of atherosclerosis, in which fatty plaques build up in arteries, Kiffer says. The heart pumps harder, blood vessels constrict, blood pressure surges, and there are higher levels of glucose in the blood and more fat globules in the blood vessels. All this, scientists believe, can cause damage to artery walls.
And anger might not be the only culprit. In Kubzansky's own research, she found that high levels of anxiety and depression may contribute to heart disease risk, too. "They tend to co-occur," she says. "People who are angry a lot tend to have other chronic negative emotions as well."