Anger & Heart Health

Let’s dive into how anger affects your heart health. Most people misunderstand the anger/health relationship, because most anger research we tend to hear about has focused on limited aspects. Just do a Google Scholar search and notice what you get. (This paper shows an example of the problem I’m talking about.)

Many social scientists who measure heart problems in relation to anger claim to be studying anger itself. But I find most of these studies to be tapping into aggression, hostility, or even rage . . . and then calling it anger. So, when they find a link between hostile actions and cardiovascular disease, they tell us: anger causes health problems.

I have a huge {#&%#@! problem with this.

Misleading Anger Studies and Society’s Misunderstanding of Anger

So my choices are aggressive asshole or, just, never get angry? Then I’m screwed. In everyday life, we know anger is more complicated and nuanced than that. We’re not always hostile when we’re mad. Often we cry or plead with our partners to listen, or we state our feelings matter-of-factly to a co-worker. And most of the time, we suck it up: We try not to be angry at all . . . which leads to all kinds of problems that are hard to measure.

A Canadian heart health study, led by Karina Davidson and Elizabeth Mostofsky, starts to get at this more complicated picture of anger and heart disease. Here, the researchers used recorded interviews to classify anger behaviors as constructive or destructive. Constructive anger expression included talking assertively and listening to another person, working to resolve an issue and even come to a new understanding of it.

Davidson and Mostofsky report that less use of these constructive or helpful anger behaviors was linked to increased cardiovascular disease in their participants. Plus, higher levels of destructive anger behaviors also related to more heart disease. The destructive anger behaviors included:

  • defensively blaming another person without the effort to understand or resolve the issue
  • brooding or fuming about something, but not trying to understand the other person or take steps to solve the problem

What do you notice about these patterns? My first thought: By not resolving the anger issue, we put our hearts under unnecessary strain. My second thought: Our bodies appreciate when we speak and process anger in a way that allows for new learning.

Homework: Make a list of people you know who use constructive anger behaviors. Think of people who lean-in and try to talk about their feelings with the other person. People who can listen to new perspectives, even though they feel wronged. These individuals experience anger without trying to hide it; but their anger changes over time as they absorb (and process) new information. What do you notice about your list?

 

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