Q: I’m pretty good at controlling my temper, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel spitting-mad inside. Am I better off expressing anger or holding it in?
A: People tend to deal with anger in one of three ways: expressing, suppressing or calming. Suppressing isn’t a great way to handle it. Trying to ignore those feelings may actually lead to high blood pressure, depression, and negative effects on your relationships and overall quality of life—you have less fun and you’re less fun to be around.
Calming can be a better way, but it’s considerably more difficult: The calming response involves attempting to defuse your feelings by breathing, pausing and allowing the feelings to pass—the process requires patience, mindfulness and forgiveness.
If you aren’t the Gandhi type, your best bet may be expressing. But that doesn’t mean throwing boxes of paper clips at your boss. Expressing anger in a clear, assertive manner—not in a way that invites aggressive confrontation—is about respectfully communicating that you are upset, declaring what your needs are and making a request for how to meet them. So rather than: “Joe, I am so mad at your stupid self that I just stuffed wet cat food someplace. Guess where, you idiot.” Try this: “Joe, I want to be real with you and let you know I’m upset. For me, when you said X, I felt like you meant Y. I want to work productively with you, and this is what would make a huge difference. Can we work this out? What can I do that would make a difference for you?”
Bottom line: Don’t hold it in. It’s bad for your health and your relationships. Be vulnerable when you’re upset, but don’t “let it rip,” and never think that being upset gives you the right to hurt others. Learn to communicate, learn to breathe, and learn to forgive.
Q: I received a serious diagnosis recently, and I feel angry about it and mad at myself for anything I might have done to increase the risk. Is this a common feeling? How can I move past it?
A: It’s not unusual to experience a host of emotions when dealing with a serious diagnosis—frustration, grief, guilt and anger are all common. But that doesn’t mean you (or anyone) should live in a permanent state of self-blame.
We’re forgiving of ourselves in just about every area of our lives besides our health. You miss a shot golfing? Take a mulligan. You double-book your weekend plans? Apologize and reschedule. But we don’t give ourselves a second chance when we need it most.
The truth is, depending on your diagnosis and your lifestyle, you may in fact have added to your risk. But so what? Accept it, and forgive it. Closing the chapter on your past habits, forgiving yourself and moving past the anger will all help give you the opportunity to take new actions that could improve your condition, or at the very least, make it easier to bear.
Q: My father had a heart attack, but he was healthy and had no family history of heart disease. I wonder whether his constant hot-headedness was a contributing factor. How important is chronic anger for heart disease?
A: It’s a huge factor. According to an analysis in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology of 44 studies on the subject, being chronically angry or hostile (but otherwise healthy) gives you a 19 percent greater chance of developing heart disease compared to your less angry peers. And individuals with heart disease who were frequently angry were 24 percent more likely than other heart patients to have a poor prognosis or to die. Another study published in Circulation looked at almost 13,000 middle-aged African-American and white men and women: Those who scored as “angriest” had about twice the risk of developing coronary artery disease and almost three times the risk of heart attack compared to subjects with the lowest anger levels.
And here’s a crazy one: University of Pennsylvania researchers analyzed tweets across 1,300 counties. They found that tweets containing words consistent with anger, hostility and aggression were better predictors of community-level patterns of heart disease than 10 other leading health indicators, including smoking, obesity, diabetes and hypertension. Counties where citizens tended to tweet more positive words—such as wonderful or friends—had a lower risk for heart disease.
This makes sense. When you’re angry, you mobilize your stress response, constricting your blood vessels and raising your cortisol, adrenaline, blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Chronically activating this physiological flurry can cause serious wear on your body and accelerate damage to your arteries, causing fatty plaques to collect, eventually leading to heart attack. One intense bout of anger can even cause plaque to rupture, immediately bringing on a heart attack.
If you’ve inherited your pop’s quick temper, we’d suggest learning to handle it in a healthy way.
Q: My wife gets so mad in traffic. How worried should I be about her road rage? I worry that she’s going to rear-end someone intentionally!
A: Road rage is a health hazard both because anger itself is detrimental and because it often goes hand in hand with unsafe driving. We’d suggest talking with your wife about it (when she’s not behind the wheel, of course), letting her know that you’re concerned and asking what stressful or upsetting things are going on in other areas of life that make her feel so edgy on the road. You can also share with her the following ideas for dealing with that frustration, both on the road and before she gets in the car.
• Deep breathing: Mindful breathing releases nitric oxide, which dilates your arteries, lowers your blood pressure and slows your heart rate.
• Visualizing: Closing your eyes and imagining a serene scene can help calm you—just make sure you’re not operating heavy machinery at the time!
• Yoga or tai chi: Slowing down and stretching things out can help release frustration.
• Running, swimming or biking: Ditto—great ways to feel a release.
• Changing your environment: If possible, take a scenic back-road route to avoid traffic, or use public transit and read a book while you commute.
• Laughing: Laughter (especially when you’re laughing at yourself) is grounding and can give you a breath of fresh air and perspective that erases tension. A stand-up comedy recording or a funny audiobook could be a helpful soundtrack for your travels.
This article appears in the August 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.