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Is My Anger Going to Kill Me?

Chronic Anger

Story at-a-glance -

  • Men who often answered yes to the question “Do you get angry easily?” had an increased risk of dying earlier
  • Compared to those in the least-angry quartile, those in the angriest 25 percent had 1.57 times the risk of dying early
  • So-called constructive anger, in which people calmly discuss angry feelings and work toward solutions, may actually have health benefits

By Dr. Mercola

Most people are aware that lifestyle habits like healthy eating and exercise can influence their lifespan, leading to either premature death or extended longevity. Less widely appreciated is the influence of psychological factors, like anger, on mortality, yet they are certainly related.

A new study from Iowa State University researchers shed some light on just how strongly negative emotions like anger might affect your risk of dying early, all by asking a simple question: “Do you get angry easily?”

People Who Are Quick to Anger May Die Earlier

The study involved more than 1,300 men who were followed for nearly 40 years. The men had an average age of just under 30 at the start of the study. Those who often answered yes to the question “Do you get angry easily?” had an increased risk of dying earlier.

Compared to those in the least-angry quartile, those in the angriest 25 percent had 1.57 times the risk of dying early.1

Even after accounting for other factors that correlate with mortality, like income level, marital and smoking status, and even personality traits (like higher levels of cognitive ability, which can be protective), the association still remained.

The study’s lead author told The Guardian:2

“It’s not just about being angry occasionally for five years… These people were likely to have been consistently angry. It’s OK to have a cross afternoon, or even a year. This question may capture not transient anger, but a predisposition to anger.”

Why Anger Can Be Deadly

Negative emotions like anger trigger a cascade of physical reactions that extend throughout your body, including increases in heart rate, arterial tension, and blood pressure. Together these could prompt changes in blood flow that encourage blood clots as well as trigger inflammation.

Letting your anger out explosively may be harmful because it triggers surges in stress hormones and injures blood vessel linings.

One study from Washington State University found that people over the age of 50 who express their anger by lashing out are more likely to have calcium deposits in their coronary arteries – an indication that you’re at a high risk for a heart attack – than their mellower peers.3

A systematic review involving data on 5,000 heart attacks, 800 strokes, and 300 cases of arrhythmia also revealed that anger increases your risk of heart attack, arrhythmia, and stroke – and the risk increases with frequent anger episodes.4

According to the study, when a person is angry, their risk of heart attack increases by nearly five-fold and their risk of stroke goes up more than three-fold in the two hours following an angry outburst (compared to when they are not angry).

The risk was even greater among those who had a history of heart problems.

Those most at risk following anger episodes were those with underlying risk factors and those who got angry frequently. Research published in Circulation further showed that men with feelings of anger and hostility had an increased risk of atrial fibrillation, or an irregular heart rhythm.5

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Chronic Anger May Increase Your Dementia Risk

It’s not only your heart health that’s influenced by anger or a similar emotion known as cynical distrust. Cynical distrust is described as believing that most people are self-interested and out for themselves as opposed to looking out for the community and others. Some experts describe it as a form of chronic anger.6

Older people with high levels of cynical distrust had a more than 2.5 times greater risk of developing dementia than those with low levels.7 The finding adds to growing research showing that negative emotions, and cynicism in particular, may lead to poor health. It’s dangerous in a number of ways.

For instance, cynical people are more likely to smoke and gain excess weight, and less likely to exercise. They also struggle more with stress and have higher levels of chronic inflammation, which is linked to chronic diseases including dementia. For instance, research has shown:

  • Women with cynical, hostile attitudes are more likely to die prematurely and have higher rates of death from coronary heart disease than women with “positive future expectations”8
  • People with cynical attitudes may suffer more from stress, and do not get as much of the stress-buffering benefits offered by positive social support9
  • Cynical hostility is associated with poor oral health10
  • Cynical hostility is associated with increased markers of inflammation, which may contribute to increased heart risks11
  • Cynical hostility is associated with increased metabolic burden among middle-aged and older adults12

Suppressing Your Anger Probably Isn’t a Good Idea

Although frequent anger is clearly not good for you, holding in your anger isn’t the answer; this has been linked to increases in blood pressure and heart rate.

One study even found suppressing your anger may triple your risk of having a heart attack.13 The health risks of suppressing your anger may be even greater if you feel you’ve been treated unfairly.

According to research published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, people who indicated they were likely to suppress their anger in response to two hypothetical anger-provoking situations had 1.7 times the mortality risk of those who expressed their anger.

Further, those who suppressed their anger when unjustifiably confronted by their spouse had twice the mortality risk of those who expressed their anger.14 As noted by Dr. Stephen Sinatra:

“Suppressed anger, rage, loss of vital connection (heartbreak), and emotional isolation and lack of intimacy with others are all ‘hidden’ emotional risk factors that can contribute to the development of heart disease.

Many cardiologists fail to recognize these psycho-emotional factors which often underlie other commonly recognized risk factors such as excessive smoking, inappropriate diet, and even high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.”

Getting in Touch with Your Emotions May Reduce Your Risk of Obesity

Living more mindfully, that is, actively focusing your attention on the moment you’re in right now, is one strategy that might help you to become more in touch with your emotions and less of a slave to anger.

There’s good reason to do so. In addition to enhancing your feelings of well-being, people who are more mindful are less likely to be obese, and have less belly fat, than those who are less so.15

It could be that focusing on what’s happening in the present may help people overcome an evolutionary predisposition to stock up on calories and rest for survival. The Epoch Times reported:16

“Mindfulness, which other studies have shown can help people overcome cravings and eat a healthier diet, [study author Eric] Loucks says, may be the cognitive tool people need to overcome their instincts.

Similarly, it may help people override an aversion to initiating exercise (research suggests that people feel great after working out but often feel ambivalent about getting started). ‘That’s where the mindfulness may come in,’ Loucks adds. ‘Being aware of each and every moment and how that’s related to what we do and how we feel.’”

Keep in mind that you can add mindfulness to virtually any aspect of your day – even while you’re eating, working or doing household chores like washing dishes – simply by paying attention to the sensations you are experiencing in the present moment. It’s not a form of formal meditation, but rather is more of an everyday mindset.

How to Turn Your Anger into a Beneficial Emotion

Anger is a normal human emotion and certainly can have its place. It may serve as a warning that something is wrong or alert you to an impending physical or psychological trauma. Feelings of anger, which trigger surges of adrenaline, may give you energy to resist potential threats. They may also help you learn how to set physical and emotional limits and boundaries in your life.

Whether that anger eventually harms your health or not may be related not only to its frequency (and chronic nature) but also to how it’s expressed and how you cope with it. Turning into a bitter, cynical, or aggressive person who slams doors or incites arguments with others will only enhance your stress (and health risks).17

However, channeling your anger into a controlled outward expression can help you to release tension and stress. An example of this would be using your anger to fuel an intense exercise session. So-called constructive anger, in which people calmly discuss angry feelings and work toward solutions, may actually have health benefits, as opposed to destructive anger, which harms it. Whereas constructive anger usually involves two people, destructive anger is usually confined to just one person.

For anger to be constructive, it typically involves anger that is justified and in which an appropriate response is received. Both parties can then focus on correcting the misunderstanding. According to the American Psychological Association, everyday anger, especially at home, may also have benefits:18

“… [A] number of studies show that in the places where anger is usually played out – especially on the domestic front – it is often beneficial. ‘When you look at everyday episodes of anger as opposed to more dramatic ones, the results are usually positive,’ says James Averill, PhD, a University of Massachusetts Amherst psychologist whose studies of everyday anger in the 1980s found that angry episodes helped strengthen relationships about half the time, according to a community sample.

Echoing those findings, a 2002 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology… found that 40 percent of a community sample of 93 people reported positive long-term effects of angry episodes, compared with 36 percent that reported neutral and 25 percent that reported negative long-term outcomes. Similarly, a 1997 study… in the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality… found that 55 percent of a comparative community sample of Russians and Americans said an angry episode produced a positive outcome. Almost a third of them noted the episode helped them see their own faults.”

How to Lengthen Your Short Fuse

If you have a short fuse when it comes to anger, I recommend using energy psychology techniques such as the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). EFT can reprogram your body’s reactions to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life by stimulating different energy meridian points in your body. It’s done by tapping on specific key locations with your fingertips while custom-made verbal affirmations are said repeatedly. This can be done alone or under the supervision of a qualified therapist.

Making a point to be more mindful – focusing on what you’re doing and the sensations you’re experiencing right now – can also be helpful in improving your mental and emotional outlook. When you’re in the present moment, your mind will have less chance to wander and ruminate on stressful or anger-provoking incidents, which can help you to let go of your angry feelings. For times when you do get angry, try to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Can you work out this misunderstanding with the other party?

Will you learn more about yourself and your own faults? Be sure to also express the anger in a constructive manner, channeling your angry energy into exercise or cleaning your house, for instance. Additionally, realize that while we all have different personalities (some more prone to anger and others more mellow) happiness is a choice you can make and even learn to make in your life. Those who are happy tend to follow a certain set of habits that create peace in their lives; if you learn to apply these habits in your own life, there’s a good chance you’ll be happier (and less angry) too.

1. Let go of grudges 2. Treat everyone with kindness 3. Regard your problems as challenges
4. Express gratitude for what you have 5. Dream big 6. Don’t sweat the small stuff
7. Speak well of others 8. Avoid making excuses 9. Live in the present
10. Wake up at the same time every morning 11. Don’t compare yourself to others 12. Surround yourself with positive people
13. Realize you don’t need others’ approval 14. Take time to listen 15. Nurture social relationships
16. Meditate 17. Eat well 18. Exercise
19. Live minimally 20. Be honest 21. Establish personal control
22. Accept what cannot be changed