The Connection Between Anger And Heart Disease

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that heart disease is the number one killer; and information is abundant to guide us toward a heart-healthy lifestyle.  You can help prevent heart-related illnesses such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease, which can lead to stroke or heart attacks.  We often read about factors such as a healthy diet, going easy on the alcohol, drinking plenty of water, not smoking, and exercising to lose those extra pounds… Sound familiar? 

In the recent past, experts have begun to include: Deal with stress appropriately.  They tell us that too much stress can contribute to high blood pressure and other illnesses, including heart disease.  Called the mind-body connection, it means that what we think and feel (our minds) affects our immune system (our bodies).  However, this dynamic connection between our minds and bodies has led to a new field, called behavioral cardiology.   Specialists in this field study ‘psychosocial factors,’ that can affect heart disease in two basic ways: Some contribute to atherosclerosis, the slow, corrosive process that damages artery walls and puts you at risk for a heart attack or stroke. Others can add that final slap in the face that can push a person over the edge emotionally and trigger a heart attack or stroke.

According to a comprehensive international study reported in The Lancet in 2004, the contribution of these psychosocial factors to heart attacks is right up there with smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and cholesterol problems. Researchers are pointing out that depression can contribute to heart disease. Intense anxiety (like fear of enclosed places, heights, crowds, etc.) can sometimes set off a sudden cardiac arrest. They emphasize that among heart attack survivors, social isolation is almost as important as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and smoking at predicting long-term survival. And of course, stress…. Chronic stress has been linked with heart disease, be it work-related stress, financial problems, a troubled marriage, taking care of a parent or partner, or even living in an unsafe neighborhood. Then there is the boom! of sudden emotional upset: Researchers at Johns Hopkins have identified this in people after a death in the family (often called broken heart syndrome), a surprise party, a robbery, a car accident, and even fear of speaking in public.

But researchers have added to this list the stress-specific factor of Anger and Hostility. It’s like a feeling of road rage, without the road! The 2004 study in The Lancet included anger as a psychosocial factor with a far-reaching contribution to heart disease. Researchers reported that atherosclerosis seems to advance faster in people who score high on anger or hostility scales. Anger can also trigger heart attacks. In the Harvard-based Determinants of Myocardial Infarction Onset Study, 1 in every 40 heart attack survivors reported an “episode of anger” in the two hours before the attack. In The Emotional Wellness Way to Cardiac Health, a study found that among 1,600 patients who had previously suffered a heart attack, the risk of another heart attack after an episode of anger was increased by 200 percent. A Johns Hopkins School of Medicine study, which tracked 1,337 male medical students for 36 years following medical school, found that students who became angry quickly under stress were three times more likely to develop premature heart disease and five times more likely to have an early heart attack.

This isn’t “touchy-feely” medicine here—this is body-specific science. Researchers have found that when angered, your body releases cholesterol and an array of chemicals called catecholamines into your blood stream. These chemicals actually speed the development of fatty deposits in the heart and carotid arteries. Researchers have also found otherwise healthy people who are prone to anger, hostility, and depression have higher levels of a substance linked to narrowing of the arteries and future heart disease risk called C-reactive protein (CRP). This protein is released in the body in response to the inflammation caused by stress, infection, and other threats to the immune system. (WebMD) Suarez, E. Psychosomatic Medicine, September 2004; vol 66.

So while the mind/body connection affects our immune system, behavioral cardiology has now connected anger with heart disease.

In considering this fascinating concept, I wondered about the root of the word “anger.” Webster tells us that “anger” comes from the Old English meaning “grief” and “narrow”; and from Latin meaning “strangle.” Ironically, just two words down from “anger” is “angi-” or “angio-”, with a root word of “blood vessel”. Followed of course, by “angina” (spasmodic attacks of intense pain); “angina pectoris” (with a focus on chest pain); and the stream of words such as “angiocardiography” (the visualization of the heart and its blood vessels).

Anger is defined as a strong feeling of displeasure and usually of antagonism, and emotional excitement induced by intense displeasure. Now, we all can suffer from feeling angry many times in our lives, but we’re talking about chronic anger—a chronic state of offense that puts one in a constant state of defense. Anger is a nagging (or screaming) feeling of resentment, frequent fury, rage and often a sense of wounded feelings. These are feelings that create a constricted feeling within the person, and within each person is a heart…

The study of yoga has revealed that the flexibility of the connective tissue (our body’s ability to stretch) has a direct correlation to the flexibility of the vascular system (our arteries, veins and our heart.) When things don’t flow, they get stuck. When they get stuck, they tend to solidify and harden. This applies to our emotions, and as a result, it applies to our arteries, and to our hearts. Like a fist closed in anger, our hearts can reflect a similar energy. An angry person has an angry or emotionally painful heart, and it can feel closed, tight, gripping. The worst prison is a closed heart.

So, what can a person do to prevent the effects of anger and heart disease?

First become aware of the anger. Identifying the fact that you’re chronically worried, stressed, sad, or angry is difficult. Sharing that with someone else, like your doctor, is even harder. But it’s an important first step.

Manage your emotions. We’re only human, and we cannot eliminate negative emotions. But we need to learn to manage and control our emotions more effectively, and to bring them into balance with our positive emotions.

Become aware of what triggers your anger. Walk away from the situation if possible; learn to ignore.

Recognize the signs. Become aware of how you feel when you are getting angry and take a time out by counting to 10 before responding. Take several deep, slow breaths, and envision a healthy space between you and whatever or whoever is triggering your anger.

Don’t Take Things Personally and Don’t Make Assumptions. Quite often things are not even “about us” and the scenarios in our minds can be based more on imagination than fact. There’s a saying “Whatever they think about me is none of my business.” Learn to remove yourself from the drama and shift your focus instead to healthy goals and inner happiness.

Practice stress management techniques. Reducing stress can help reduce anger. Try yoga, deep breathing, stretching, meditating or listening to relaxation tapes.

Control what you can. If you are stressed and pressured by too many demands, learn to say no. Keep your private time just that: private. Turn off your cell and don't check your email. Unless it's an emergency, let work wait until the next workday. If you have people or situations in your life that cause you grief, make some changes or, if that's not possible, limit your exposure to them.

Consider therapy. Some people can learn to manage anger on their own. Others need therapy or behavior modification programs. Counseling and anger management classes can help. You can’t control how other people behave, but you can learn — through counseling — how to respond more effectively to high-stress situations.

Begin (and stick with) regular exercise. Help manage your emotions by giving yourself a healthy outlet. Exercise lowers blood pressure, cholesterol, and stress hormones. And it can help boost your self-esteem too.

Live a lifestyle geared toward a smart heart. People who are chronically angry and stressed tend to have other heart-damaging habits, like smoking, excessive drinking, and an unhealthy diet. Is this you? If so, you need to take steps to change your lifestyle.

Always keep in mind that your emotions affect your health as much as diet and exercise. The link between mind and heart is strong. Food for thought: Does love and positivity promote heart health?

by: Cindy Grey

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