Anger is a natural, and necessary emotional response. It can protect us from perceived threats, motivate us to take on a challenge and shift gears to improve a situation, or result in us facing issues that need to be addressed. But as many of us can relate, if not managed in a healthy way, anger can also be destructive and damage our health and relationships. The body’s natural response to anger is shifting from supporting normal physical functions to fight or flight mode. The body releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, muscles tighten, and our blood pressure and heart rate increase. Senses can feel heightened. Our bodies are ready for whatever is next, whether it is a real danger to our safety, or situation that requires mental agility.
According to psychologist Charles Spielberger, anger is defined as ‘an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation to intense fury and rage.’ It can last a few moments- impatience from waiting for a traffic light to turn green- or prolonged- a conflicted relationship with a loved one that we can’t seem to resolve.
Some research suggests that inappropriately expressing anger, or not expressing it at all, can harm your health. Sigmund Freud wrote “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” But, when managed appropriately, anger can be beneficial, an essential tool that motivates and can bring about positive change.
The benefits of anger
Most often, people think of anger as problematic. We’ve all likely had moments where we experienced anger and regretted what resulted from the interactions surrounding the emotions. Yelled at your partner? Ignored or belittled your child? Experienced road rage? It can be defeating to come out of the emotional experience and realize that it could have been handled better. It isn’t all bad news though, when addressed and managed in a constructive way, anger can be a beneficial tool for us to address issues, see things from a different perspective, and hone in on how you’re really feeling about a situation.
When experiencing anger, some people report feelings of exhilaration and heightened senses. In an angry state, the brain’s reward system releases dopamine, which can lead to the feelings of excitement (albeit, not joyous excitement). Norepinephrine is also released, which is associated with the ability to concentrate and numbs physical or psychological pain. This occurrence is fascinating, as many people associate somebody in the heat of anger as irrational and unable to think clearly. But, it turns out that the opposite is true- anger can sharpen our analytical skills and help us make decisions.
One study explored the specifics of how anger impacts people’s analytic processing. Three different experiments were completed:
Experiment 1 showed that angry participants were more likely to discriminate between weak and strong arguments than participants in neutral moods.
Experiment 2 demonstrated that anger overrode dispositional preferences not to process, causing even those low in need for cognition to process analytically.
Experiment 3 reconciled these findings with previous work by showing that angry people used accessible, valid, and relevant heuristics (so-called mental shortcuts that ease the cognitive load of making a decision), but otherwise processed analytically, as indicated by attitude change and elaboration data.
The researchers showed that angry people can have both the capacity and motivation to process and that even in the heat of the moment, they are able to process analytically, not “lose their heads” as many assume is what happens when people experience anger. This provides an opportunity; in this heightened state, when equipped with the right coping tools, people can shift away from allowing the feelings of anger to overwhelm and disrupt, to being a method by which to focus on the issue at hand. What brought about the anger, why is it so upsetting, and what needs to change to not continue the cycle?
The TED talk linked below features Ryan Martin, an anger researcher, and is a fantastic conversation surrounding the benefits of anger. It explores why we experience it and a uniquely different way to consider how we maneuver through it.
The downside of anger
There’s also evidence that anger and hostility is linked with health issues that can have serious consequences. When it comes to living a lifestyle that supports overall health, it goes beyond diet, exercise, hydration, and sleep. It turns out, managing anger is a significant indicator in whether you develop heart disease, high blood pressure, peptic ulcers and stroke.
Heart health: Most physically damaging is anger’s effect on your cardiac health. “In the two hours after an angry outburst, the chance of having a heart attack doubles,” says Chris Aiken, MD, an instructor in clinical psychiatry at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine and director of the Mood Treatment Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In addition to the immediate, prolonged repressed anger has also been associated with heart disease. One study found that people that were anger prone were twice as likely to develop coronary disease than those without that personality trait.
Stroke risk: Studies have shown that within two hours of an angry outburst, people are also three times more likely to have a stroke from a blood clot to the brain or bleeding in the brain. For people with an aneurysm in one of the brain’s arteries, there was a six times higher risk of rupturing this aneurysm following an angry outburst.
General wellness is impacted: Frequently feeling angry can leave you feeling drained, sluggish, and just “off”. It’s not just the mental weight of the emotion that has you feeling down in the dumps. A study out of Harvard University found that in otherwise healthy people, even just remembering an angry experience resulted in a six-hour decrease in their antibody immunoglobulin A- which fights infection in the body.
Anxiety: The immediate emotion of anger can ultimately become prolonged anxiety. In fact, a study published in the journal Cognitive Behavior Therapy, researchers found that anger can worsen symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a condition characterized by an excessive and uncontrollable worry that interferes with a person’s daily life. Those with high levels of social anxiety may believe others are more socially capable than themselves, and may also have feelings of hostility or a belief that others carry bad intentions towards them. This simmering of angry emotions (as opposed to a lashing out of sudden anger), were also found to be prevalent in people with GAD.
Depression: Numerous studies have linked depression with aggression and angry outbursts, especially in men. “In depression, passive anger — where you ruminate about it but never take action — is common,” says Aiken. His advice for someone struggling with depression mixed with anger is to get busy and stop thinking so much. Easier said than done, but this is where developing methods to help cope with anger come in- we’ll share some tips in next week’s post.
Lung Capacity: This may be a surprising side effect of anger. For those that tend to be angry or hostile, a diminished lung capacity may be the result. A group of Harvard University scientists studied 670 men over eight years using a hostility scale scoring method to measure anger levels and assessed any changes in the men’s lung function. The men with the highest hostility ratings had significantly worse lung capacity, which increased their risk of respiratory problems. The researchers theorized that an uptick in stress hormones, which are associated with feelings of anger, creates inflammation in the airways.
These are just a few examples of the more serious health issues that may result from prolonged feelings of anger and hostility. Other health concerns that may occur from unaddressed feelings of anger include digestive problems, skin issues, insomnia, headaches, and more.
Anger is something every human experiences and developing the tools to manage the emotion is crucial to a healthy and productive life. Next week we’ll share tips on how to develop healthy habits to cope with the wide range of angry emotions.