Anger is a universal, natural, and sometimes useful emotion. It can lead a person to take action against injustice, or to defend others against it. It can fuel political campaigns and social change. The American rebels who threw tea into Boston harbor on December 16, 1773, were no doubt very angry.
Yet anger also inflicts suffering, as you know if you’ve ever dealt with outbursts from a colleague or family member. A large body of research supports the idea that the chronically angry, especially people forced to suppress their anger routinely, are at increased risk for stroke, other forms of cardiovascular disease, and poorer health generally.
What anger can trigger
The word “anger” comes from the root “angh,” the same root as “angina,” the chest pains caused by blockage of the coronary arteries. When you get angry, your face may flush, your blood pressure rises, and the level of stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) rises in your bloodstream. All this is a normal reaction, but if it happens all the time, the result can be unhealthy. Many studies, including the famous Framingham Heart Study, suggest that people with hostile, aggressive personalities—that is, those given to frequent anger—are more likely to have coronary artery disease and heart attacks.
In fact, a systematic review in the European Heart Journal in 2014 suggests that a single angry outburst can have immediate adverse effects. Researchers analyzed data from nine studies that asked patients about their anger level preceding a cardiovascular event. The risk of having a heart attack or episode of unstable angina was found to be nearly five times higher in the two hours following an anger outburst than at other times, while stroke risk was nearly four times higher.
That’s not to say that if you get angry, you are sure to have a heart attack or stroke. The researchers estimated that for every 10,000 adults at low cardiovascular risk, one anger episode a month would result in just one extra cardiovascular event a year. For every 10,000 people at high risk, one anger episode would result in four extra events. But if you get angry a lot, the risk rises substantially. Five outbursts a day would lead to about 158 extra cardiovascular events a year for every 10,000 people at low risk, and 657 extra events for those at high risk.
Of course, smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and high blood cholesterol levels are the best-understood risk factors for heart attack and stroke. But adding anger or hostility on top of these can only worsen matters.
If you’re worried about your heart and are in the process of giving up smoking, losing weight, reducing your blood cholesterol levels, and taking other positive steps, you might want to consider also reducing hostility and anger. There is no scientific proof that anger treatment or formal anger-management therapy will prevent a heart attack, but it may help.
Ask for a referral from your doctor. Options include group or individual therapy. Group anger-management sessions you are likely to encounter may vary widely. They may include relaxation training, techniques for identifying what makes you angry, and training in the skills that allow a person to express anger without spinning out of control. Countering feelings of helplessness can help some people deal with their anger constructively. Indeed, anger therapy often comes down to common sense.
Consider the following questions and techniques with the help of a qualified counselor, if possible:
- What makes you angry? Are you angry for a reason—a bad employer, an abusive or neglectful relationship at home? What can be done to correct the source of the anger? Should you change, or should you try to change your circumstances, or both?
- Relaxation therapy to lower your heart rate, breathing rate, and muscle tension may be worth trying. Some people find meditation helpful.
- It can’t hurt to try thinking analytically about angry episodes, reflecting on your real needs and desires, and trying to satisfy them in constructive ways.
- Therapy may help you learn to blame others less severely, focus on forgiveness, and learn empathy for the person at whom you’ve vented your anger.
Also see our infographic: Can Anger Hurt Your Heart?