“Have you ever gotten so enraged at work that you actually gritted your teeth in frustration? Did your last disagreement with your partner cause you to ball your fists in fury and leave the room?
As American Heart Month draws to a close, it’s important to evaluate how our ability to manage our emotions can impact our body’s most vital organ, and examine new research that sheds light on just how harmful unchecked outbursts can be on our hearts.
A bout of anger can lead to a more than eight-fold increase in a person’s risk for having a heart attack, while an episode of extreme anxiety can up the chances of having a heart attack by 9.5 times, says a group of scientists from the University of Sydney. According to lead researcher, Dr. Thomas Buckley, this elevated risk can last for a while after the initial incident has passed, “the higher risk of heart attack isn’t necessarily just while you’re angry—it lasts for two hours after the outburst,” he says.
After examining the data of more than 300 men and women who’d been treated for a heart attack at the Royal North Shore Hospital between 2006 and 2012, researchers discovered that arguments with family members, conflicts at work, and road rage were all triggers of a significant number of heart-damaging anger and anxiety episodes.
The physiology of anger
Why do anger and anxiety have such a major effect on heart attack risk?
It turns out that these emotions cause a cascade of chemicals to flood the body, specifically adrenaline and noradrenaline, which prepare you to fend off or flee from a threat. This preparation process can be hard on your heart, especially if you already suffer from high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels or blood vessel blockage.
“Increased risk following intense anger or anxiety is most likely due to increased heart rate, blood pressure, tightening of blood vessels and increased clotting, all associated with triggering heart attacks,” Buckley says in a University of Sydney press release.
Managing emotions in advance
There’s no way to totally avoid anger and anxiety in everyday life, but developing ways to better manage stressful situations is key for keeping your heart (and the rest of you) healthy.
Typical stress management suggestions include meditation, counting to ten, etc. But a new investigation into the coping mechanisms used by older adults suggests that pre-planning your response to certain stressors can also have a major impact on your emotional response.
The study was carried out by a group of psychology researchers from North Carolina State University. They took a look at how adults between the ages of 60 and 96 mentally prepared themselves for future stress, and what impact this preparation had on their overall mood. “We learned that what you do on a Monday really makes a difference for how you feel on Tuesday,” says lead author Dr. Shevaun Neupert in a report about his team’s findings.
Some of the common methods of stress preparation identified by the researchers were:
- Stagnant deliberation: Attempting (and failing) to mentally solve a problem.
- Plan rehearsal: Visualizing the steps necessary to rectify a particular problem.
- Outcome fantasy: Hoping that a problem will somehow solve itself.
- Problem analysis: Looking at the reason for a problem, and considering its future meaning and impact.
Engaging in outcome fantasy and stagnant deliberation tends to make people feel worse the next day, the researchers concluded. Plan rehearsal and problem analysis, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have a significant positive or negative impact.
Stress research is still in its infancy, and no two people are the same when it comes to dealing with stress, but Neupert remains hopeful, “The more we understand what’s really going on, the better we’ll be able to help people deal effectively with the stressors that come up in their lives,” he says.”
From “How Anger Harms Your Heart” By AgingCare.com