Angry People Hurt Their Hearts

Persistent anger can lead to heart problems. Learn why people with aggressive personalities may be setting themselves up for trouble down the road.

Scientists have long observed connections between emotions and health. The heart and the head are often inseparable, whether it is heartache or heartbreak.

Intense emotions like anxiety, happiness and sexual arousal usually come with increases in heart rate and blood pressure. But when it comes to your heart, anger may be a dangerous emotion. An upsetting event - especially one that involves anger - is a common trigger for abnormal heart rhythms or even heart attacks.

In the mid-1970s, the benchmark Framingham Heart Study found that suppressed anger could help predict the incidence of heart disease. More recently, a government study showed that men with problems controlling anger had three times the risk of heart disease than those who controlled their anger well.

Personality may predict heart disease
Some people are unable to relax and are quick to feel angry or frustrated when things don't go as planned. These compulsive, driven overachievers are sometimes called "Type A" personalities. Type A behavior might include traits like ambition, urgency, anger, aggression and hostility.

Some older studies found that type A people had a much higher rate of getting heart disease and having heart attacks within five to eight years than those who are relaxed and less aggressive. Other studies did not support this, though. So researchers went back and tried to isolate the trait in Type A behavior that was most linked with heart disease. This research pointed to anger as one of the main culprits.

When comparing angry people to more even-tempered types, angry folks are more likely to have:

  • Lower good-to-bad cholesterol (HDL/LDL) ratios
  • Higher triglyceride (fat) levels
  • Higher blood pressure that may rise even higher in the three years following a major anger incident

Those who are consistently angry are more likely to be male, smokers and drinkers. People with anger problems also tend to come from families that are chaotic and communicate poorly.

How it works
Emotions and stress affect the heart directly through a part of the nervous system that governs heart muscle, glands and smooth muscles - like those in the intestines. Emotions and stress also affect the heart indirectly through hormones and the nervous system.

Activities that lead to intense anger, frustration, anxiety and sadness can trigger the body's natural flight-or-fight response, which in some cases may cause:

  • Narrowing of blood vessels that supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart
  • Rupturing of atherosclerotic plaques, which can cause blood clots to form, leading to heart attack or stroke
  • Blocked arteries caused by blood platelets clumping and sticking

Are you angry?
To determine if you have an anger problem, ask yourself these questions based on a scale used by behavior experts:

  • Do you have a quick or fiery temper?
  • Do you get angry or furious when you:
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    • Are not recognized for good work?
    • Do a good job and get a poor evaluation?
    • Are criticized in front of others?
    • Are slowed down by others' mistakes?
  • Are you described as
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    • A hothead?
    • Often flying off the handle?
  • When you get angry or frustrated do you:
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    • Say nasty things?
    • Feel like hitting someone?

If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you should talk to a counselor about tips to help you manage your anger.

Getting help
If you or others feel your anger is out of control and affecting relationships, consider counseling. Once you find out what triggers your anger, a therapist can teach you how to change your thinking and behavior to handle your anger better. You can use these strategies to keep those triggers from pushing you over the edge