Shrinking lungs, a haywire heart, your immune system shutting down… Calm down! Being angry makes you ill
22:41 GMT, 2 April 2012
Getting angry is a natural human reaction and, for most of us, the occasional outburst may help to release pent-up stress.
But what happens to the body when it is continuously subjected to the emotional upheaval that accompanies day-to-day hostility and rage
Scientific evidence suggests frequent angry outbursts may increase the long-term risk of everything from heart attacks and strokes to poor healing and a weakened immune system.
Those those who dwell on the bad things in life were more likely to be sensitive to pain than those who lived life one day at a time
Last week researchers at the University of Granada in Spain found ‘looking back in anger’ at past mistakes could make us less able to withstand pain.
They quizzed 50 men and women on their feelings about past events, mistakes made and missed opportunities.
The results, reported in the medical journal PLoS One, showed those who dwelt on the bad things in life were more likely to be sensitive to pain than those who lived life one day at a time.
One possible explanation is that negative moods disrupt the circuitry of the brain.
Certainly, the damaging effects of anger on the body are increasingly well documented.
When we lose our temper, our heart rate increases, blood pressure rises and blood flow to the muscles is increased as part of the ‘fight or flight’ response that prepares us to either engage in combat or flee.
At the same time, glucose levels rise to give muscles the energy they need for action and the adrenal glands pump out more of the hormone adrenaline.
When we lose our temper, our heart rate increases
This enlarges the pupil of the eye for sharper vision and expands the lungs so they can gulp in the extra oxygen they may need.
‘People often feel very energetic when they get angry,’ explains Annie Hinchliff, a chartered psychologist working in anger management.
‘Their heart beats faster, their vision becomes sharper and their hearing becomes quite acute.’
All this is an entirely normal response and once the mood has calmed, these functions all return to normal, without any long-term health consequences.
The risks to health increase when the body is exposed to these ‘emergency’ responses regularly.
It’s thought to cause wear and tear on the cardiovascular system.
The heart is the organ most at risk in someone with an ‘angry’ personality.
And the greatest danger is in those who bottle up feelings rather than vent their anger.
Swedish scientists looked at 2,755 male employees in Stockholm and found those who did not openly express their anger if they were unfairly treated at work doubled their risk of a heart attack.
The men were asked if they dealt with things head-on or let things pass without saying anything.
Those who walked away from conflict without saying anything had double the risk of a heart attack compared to men who challenged authority.
Researchers blamed repeated increases in blood pressure which eventually damaged the cardiovascular system.
As Julian Halcox, professor of cardiology at Cardiff University explains: ‘The evidence is inconclusive, but some studies suggest prolonged anger and hostility increases stress on the cardio-vascular system.
'It’s good to get things off your chest, and we’re not talking about people who just get angry from time to time.
‘It’s more those for whom anger is a personality trait.’
It’s not just the heart that’s affected by how we express our anger. Scientists at the University of Miami studied 61 men with localised prostate cancer — a tumour that hasn’t spread — to see if the body’s cancer-fighting cells were affected by whether men suppressed or released their anger.
They used a scoring system to assess each patient for anger suppression and then took a sample of blood to measure the cytotoxicity — or strength — of their natural killer cells.
These are white blood cells which attack tumours. They found men who voiced their feelings had more potent killer cells, probably because they had lower stress hormone levels.
Anger can have a deleterious effect on our emotional well being. Just recalling an angry experience caused a six-hour suppression of the immune system
On the other hand, temper tantrums raise the risk of atrial fibrillation, a major risk factor for stroke thought to affect more than one million people in the UK.
Here the heart’s electrical activity goes haywire and it starts to beat in an abnormal rhythm.
As a result, blood pools and thickens inside its main pumping chambers.
If a fragment of the clotting blood breaks loose it can travel into the smaller blood vessels of the brain, causing a stroke.
For ten years, scientists tracked the health of nearly 4,000 men and women to compare atrial fibrillation rates with anger and hostility ratings.
They found men who had more angry outbursts or got furious when criticised were up to 30 per cent more likely to suffer atrial fibrillation than the more even-tempered.
Women tend to develop heart disease later than men and it may have been that the 18 to 77 age group in this study was too young to highlight a risk.
Anger and negative emotions are also bad for your lungs.
Scientists at Harvard University in the U.S. discovered this when they studied 670 men using the Cook-Medley Hostility Scale, a ‘scoring’ system used by mental health experts to work out a person’s anger levels.
Over eight years, the men had regular tests to assess changes in lung function.
The results showed those with the highest hostility ratings had significantly worse lung capacity, increasing the risk of respiratory problems.
It’s thought stress hormones could increase inflammation in the airways.
Other studies have shown the immune system can be suppressed by anger. Harvard University scientists asked healthy people to focus on two emotions — anger or compassion — while a key antibody, called immunoglobulin A, was measured.
IgA is the first line of defence, acting as a protective coating for the cells against invading organisms.
Just recalling an angry experience caused a six-hour suppression of the immune system while feelings of compassion boosted IgA levels significantly.
‘There is evidence that stress suppresses immunity and there are always viruses lurking which can take advantage,’ says Professor John Oxford, a virologist at Queen Mary’s School of Medicine in London.
The theory is that excessive levels of stress-related hormones, such as cortisol, interfere with the ability to resist infection.
Similarly, a foul temper appears to slow down the body’s repair mechanisms. For example, cuts may take longer to heal.
Researchers at Ohio State University recruited 98 healthy volunteers who underwent an anger assessment and then agreed to have minor burns on one forearm to create a blister.
For eight days, the wounds were checked daily by doctors to track the speed of the healing process.
Those who were least able to control their anger healed more slowly than those who kept their temper in check.
The researchers also found the angry recruits had higher levels of cortisol in their blood, which could be a factor in delayed healing.
Cortisol has been shown to disrupt the delivery of compounds called cytokines which trigger the wound-healing process.
Perhaps not surprisingly, anger can have a deleterious effect on our emotional well being.
While some people experience an initial thrill, an angry outburst is usually followed by considerable remorse, says Annie Hinchcliff.
‘It can affect relationships, working lives and self-esteem.’
But anger is not all bad and could even boost success at work.
Psychologists at Stanford University in the U.S. carried out an experiment where students were asked to play the role of someone negotiating a business deal.
They were given different scripts to follow, some of which involved making demands angrily.
Those who feigned anger were more likely to force their business rivals to back down.