How Uncontrolled Anger Can Hurt Your Health

By Charles H. Elliott, Laura L. Smith, W. Doyle Gentry

The link between emotion and physical health can be both direct and indirect. Anger, for example, has an instantaneous effect on your blood pressure — but that effect is short-lived and generally doesn’t cause any immediate harm, although chronic anger appears to increase your risks of heart disease and possibly high blood pressure. Furthermore, anger elevates blood pressure through its link to smoking and obesity — and that effect is permanent.

Anger robs your energy

Anger and fatigue go hand in hand. Emotions spend energy. The body requires energy to mobilize itself into an attack posture — heart pounding, blood pressure up, muscles tense from head to toe. By its very nature, anger excites you. Your adrenaline flows. And afterward comes the recovery, where you feel physically drained — exhausted.

Now, imagine that you suffer from chronic anger. You go through this vicious cycle of excitation and exhaustion several times every day. Consider how much of your energy is being robbed by this intrusive emotion!

Smoking and anger

Your risk for being a cigarette smoker is substantially higher if you typically experience intense anger and hostility.

Surprisingly, using nicotine reduces the likelihood that you’ll react aggressively when you’re provoked to anger. That’s the good news. The bad news is that smoking is linked to heart disease (and obviously, cancer). Angry smokers are far less likely to succeed in their attempts to quit smoking than non-angry smokers. Finally, anger is the second-leading cause of relapse among ex-smokers — less than stress/anxiety but greater than depression.

Being hooked on cigarettes may also mean that you’re hooked on anger.

How anger is linked to drinking

Alcohol is a numbing agent when it comes to emotions. People drink to forget not only their troubles but also what they’re feeling at the moment — sadness, anxiety, shame, guilt, and anger. The more you drink, the less connected you are to those feelings. Most people don’t drink to make themselves feel good — they drink to feel less bad.

If you plan to continue to drink alcohol but you’re concerned about anger, consider the following:

  • Alcohol — even in small quantities — can cause you to misperceive the motives and actions of others. What might otherwise be viewed as unintended or accidental is now seen as intended to inflict harm.

  • Alcohol has a disinhibitory effect on emotions and behavior. It lowers the nervous system’s threshold for emotional expression, allowing you to do things you otherwise wouldn’t if you were sober. It also transforms behavior and makes you feel you have the “right” to act opposite to your normal self — the quiet person becomes loud, the submissive person becomes dominant, the sweet person becomes angry.

  • Alcohol affects mood in the aftermath of drinking. That is, if you’re a heavy drinker, you can expect to feel more depressed after you sober up than if you use less alcohol.

  • If you are what’s called an angry drinker — you get angry when you drink— alcohol is probably a very bad choice for you. No one really knows why, but some people act silly when drinking, some feel depressed when drinking, still others feel more sexual, and so on. But if you usually feel angry when drinking, you should stay away from alcohol.

One drink per day for women and two drinks a day for men is considered moderate drinking. Studies have shown that people who keep their drinking at that level may even have less cardiovascular disease and reduced memory loss in old age. However, anything more than this amount is excessive and usually harmful to your health. The bottom line: Some people simply can’t stick to one or two drinks per day, and, in those cases, abstinence works better than moderation.

Obesity and anger

Do you head for the refrigerator or the nearest fast-food restaurant when irritable, upset, or angry? If you do, you’re not alone. Food is, unfortunately, the solution that many people choose to quell their anger as well as other negative emotions. And, of course, obesity is yet another risk factor for heart disease and diabetes.

In fact, studies have shown that depression, anger, and hostility may increase the risk for metabolic syndrome — a condition characterized by high blood pressure, high triglycerides, high blood glucose levels, resistance to insulin, and excess weight around the waist. Metabolic syndrome often leads to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

How anger affects high blood pressure

People who have high blood pressure have a much higher risk for heart disease. And people who are habitually angry have a much higher risk for high blood pressure. It should be noted that people who express their anger outwardly (yelling, screaming, and throwing objects, for example) as well as people who pretend they’re not angry but actually harbor considerable rage are all at increased risk for developing high blood pressure and heart disease.

High cholesterol and anger

Anger doesn’t cause you to have high cholesterol, which places you at risk for heart disease. Family history contributes a lot to high cholesterol. But there is no question that obesity, anger, and stress aggravate the problem.

When your physician tells you that you need to lose weight and start exercising to lower your cholesterol levels, you should follow that advice. But if anger is a problem for you, consider the potential benefit of anger management in helping you get to your goals.

On-the-job injuries caused by anger

You’ll probably spend most of your adult life working. So if you’re injured, it’s most likely to occur on the job — and that’s true no matter what you do for a living. So what does that have to do with anger? It turns out that on-the-job injuries occur at a higher rate for people who have excessive problems with anger. Many accidents at work occur during or just following an episode of anger.

Road rage

Psychologist Jerry Deffenbacher at Colorado State University has two important messages: Anger is hazardous to driving, and if you’re a self-professed high-anger driver, do yourself a favor and get some help. High-anger drivers take more risks, drive faster, and have more accidents and injuries. Not a good combination.

Many of the things in life that are called accidents really aren’t accidents. And some people are really just accidents waiting to happen. Be honest with yourself about your own road rage — you could not only be saving your life but also the lives of everyone else on the road with you.