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.
When she needs relief from the grind of delivering major proposals, Dana Marlowe, 33, of Washington, D.C., makes some noise. "I cruise right into my toddler’s playroom, and I just jam out with his toys -- the xylophone, the baby piano. I almost have 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' down," says Marlowe, a technology accessibility consultant.
This kind of casual music-making can short-circuit the stress response, research shows, and keep it from becoming chronic. Stress starts in the brain and then...
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."
Emotions and the Heart
According to an analysis of findings from 44 studies published last year in
the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, evidence supports the
link between emotions and heart disease. To be specific, anger and hostility
are significantly associated with more heart problems in initially healthy
people, as well as a worse outcome for patients already diagnosed with heart