No one is safe from anger. Everyone, at some point in life experienced it. We felt that heat rising from the chest to the head, the heart accelerates and the muscles get tensed.
The emotions that we usually label as “negative” aren’t necessarily harmful. In fact, they have a great activating power, which means they predispose us to action. The problem are not the emotions themselves, but the time during which we cling to them.
When negative emotions become our traveling companions, they can become chronic and endanger our health. Seneca already warned centuries ago: “Anger is an acid that does more damage to the container where it is stored than on anything on which it is poured.”
Anger affects health
All emotions have a physiological impact, so it’s not surprising that a study conducted at the universities of Leipzig and Concordia has shown that anger affects health. These researchers appreciated that high levels of anger are related to poor health in the elderly.
The study involved 226 adults, who were took blood samples to assess the levels of chronic inflammation and analyzed their health searching for chronic diseases related to age, such as cardiovascular pathologies, arthritis and/or diabetes. The participants also completed a questionnaire about the level of anger they usually experience during a normal day.
The results indicated that the highest levels of anger were associated with increased inflammation and poor health as time passed. This can indicate that, although during the first decades of life, anger doesn’t take its toll, it could have a cumulative effect that begins to manifest itself over the years.
Physical effects of anger
To understand how anger affects health, we must start from its effects on the body. Anger generates an activation of the sympathetic system, which is responsible for releasing hormones called catecholamines, which are related to stress and are those that affect the cardiovascular system by increasing heart rate and blood pressure.
When we get angry often and don’t let go of that emotion, our body makes a great effort. A sustained increase in muscle tension occurs and a large amount of adrenaline is secreted. This state of constant activation ends up affecting our organism. In fact, it’s not unusual for anger to cause an emotional headache, anxiety dizziness and loss of energy.
Chronic anger also ends up causing a deregulation of the physiological processes at the level of neuroendocrine and autonomic system, causing a chronic inflammation that increases the risk of suffering from different diseases. In fact, the study found that people who reported feeling more angry also had higher levels of IL-6, a cytosine related to anti-inflammatory and proinflammatory activity that, when produced in excess, can cause different inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis or osteoporosis.
Anger should not be ignored, it should be managed
• Calm your body. When anger is triggered, it generates a series of physiological responses. If you learn to detect those reactions, you can stop them before is produced an emotional hijacking. Doing breathing exercises will help you activate the parasympathetic system, which lowers blood pressure and heart rate in a matter of minutes.
• Identify the cause of anger. Anger is a message, so you shouldn’t ignore it. If you repress anger you will only make it accumulate, until you burst. Instead, you must delve into its cause. You are likely to discover that anger has much deeper roots than you thought and that you really need to solve other problems: like overwork or a latent conflict.
• Don’t react, respond. One of the most important steps to assertively manage anger is to inhibit the initial impulse. Before reacting, stop to reflect on what you are about to say or do. Try to look at the situation from a psychological distance that allows you assume a more detached posture.
Barlow, M. A. et. Al. (2019) Is Anger, but Not Sadness, Associated With Chronic Inflammation and Illness in Older Adulthood? Psychology and Aging; 34(3): 330 –340.