If your chill was nowhere to be found this year, you’re not alone. Public life and personal hardships provided ample fodder for flare-ups, which, in addition to costing your cool, can also take a more serious toll: According to scientists, prolonged and extreme anger can also exacerbate existing health problems, as well as affect the way we react to certain issues.
“Throughout the day and throughout the week and throughout the month, we’re activating these systems during times of frustration, anger or rage that in the short run might help you in an emergency situation,” said Dr. Ilan Shor Wittstein, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. “But in the long run, it might be quite detrimental to how these neurohormonal systems are activated as often as they are for those cases.”
Anger responses can cause a ripple effect throughout the body: From the cardiovascular system to your nervous system, it’s all fair game. These are just some of the main organ systems it can play havoc with.
According to Wittstein, an expert in stress cardiomyopathy, one way to think about the heart is to imagine a house: There can be issues with the pipes, doors or the electrical system, but the house itself might seem fine.
“Rage can have effects on the arteries that supply blood on the heart, it can have an effect on the electrical system specifically that tells the heart when to beat, and it can have an effect specifically on the heart muscle itself,” he said.
If you already have conditions that affect the cardiovascular system, moments of anger may leave you more vulnerable. When you’re enraged, Wittstein offered as an example, blood pressure can increase, blood vessels can constrict and inflammatory cells are released. This can lead to the rupturing of plaque inside a coronary artery. If that plaque forms a clot, blood supply in that portion of the heart can be cut off. “And that can either cause a heart attack that lands a person in the hospital, or a person can even drop dead of a sudden heart attack,” he said.
In a sense, anger can have a positive physical effect in that it can help motivate you to do something. When we’re angry and aroused, our brains are primed for fast reactions. If danger or a social threat triggers an angry state, we are more likely to act on it: the fight-or-flight response.
One trade-off: In that agitated state, we’re less likely to make good judgments, to listen and to be attuned to other motivations that are important, like values, said Dr. Royce Lee, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural neuroscience at the University of Chicago.
“You might often hear a person in an angry state say or do something that they don’t really like,” Lee said. “And when they’re not angry they will regret it.”
Dr. Orli Etingin, an internist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital, said that anger and chronic stress also affect memory. “Forget about the fact that you’re probably sleep deprived too,” she said, “but you definitely cannot pay good attention to things.”
You might have heard about the “gut-brain connection,” the much-discussed link between emotions and our stomachs. Like other feelings, rage can trigger discomfort, malabsorption of food and loss of appetite.
“The GI tract is made up of muscle tissue, and it’s innervated by nerves. So if you have a very high adrenaline output, the stomach and the intestines are going to have a hypermobility,” Etingin said. “You’re going to have cramps, you’re going to have diarrhoea, because the muscles there are being over activated.”
Dr William Burg, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Yale School of Medicine, said that small changes in your routine can help. “Meditation, breath work, fitness and getting a full night’s rest are all helpful ways to manage anger,” he said.