Do you have a short fuse?
Are you easily angered, often upset or frequently consumed by fury – over who knows what? Of course your blood isn’t literally boiling, but chronic anger could have a damaging impact on not only your relationships and personal life, but also your overall well-being.
Certainly anger is a normal human emotion, and getting upset from time to time doesn’t do a person any mental or physical harm. “Anger, just as a fight-or-flight mechanism, with stress and anxiety … is meant to be physiologically beneficial,” says Dr. Cynthia Thaik, a cardiologist and holistic health practitioner based in Los Angeles. “We’re trying to increase the blood flow to the organs that are supposed to take action – the cardiovascular, the neuromuscular system and the central nervous system.”
Anger, like experiencing anxiety or stress, can serve a useful purpose, spurring change or action, such as when conflict – approached in a respectful manner – improves the quality of a relationship. But in other cases, the frequency, duration or intensity of anger can make it problematic, notes John Schinnerer, an anger management coach in Danville, California, and a consultant to the Pixar movie “Inside Out,” which brings a child’s various emotions to life through different characters.
Often people can’t control their anger – and rather it controls them. “It becomes a problem when it is too frequent, too intense, too enduring, and when it stops working for you,” says Howard Kassinove, professor emeritus of clinical psychology and director of the Institute for the Study and Treatment of Anger and Aggression at Hofstra University in New York. That is, it ceases to serve a positive function, explains Kassinove, co-author of “Anger Management for Everyone.”
Experts say this kind of toxic or uncontrolled anger is most concerning from a health standpoint. “If you have intermittent episodes of really very severe anger, it can affect the heart,” says Dr. Michael A. Kutcher, an interventional cardiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “It’s kind of an adjunctive risk factor. It’s not of and by itself a cause of coronary artery disease or a cause of heart disease. But if the anger is sustained and the blood pressure is affected and the heart rate is affected, that indirectly can lead to coronary disease or disease of the heart muscle.”
The list of ways chronic anger can affect a person’s well-being – and even put the health of others in peril – is long, Schinnerer says. “It’s been linked to obesity, low self-esteem, migraines, drug and alcohol addiction, depression, sexual performance problems, increased heart attack risk, lower-quality relationships, higher probability of abusing others emotionally or physically or both … higher blood pressure and stroke,” he notes.
Chronic anger also leads to increased anxiety, insomnia, mental or brain fog and fatigue, Thaik says. And it can reduce the immune system's ability to fend off threats, leading to an increased risk of infection, and even possibly cancer, she adds.
Beyond breaking up relationships and wreaking havoc on one’s personal and professional life, the profound impact chronic anger can have on health is all the more reason to take steps to get it under control. One place to start is practicing mindfulness. Often we deal with layer upon layer of emotions – for example, feeling bad about an angry outburst, and later getting upset at ourselves for it. “We need to find some way to be aware of that cycle and to begin to break the cycle,” Schinnerer says. One way to do this, he says, is by becoming more aware of when you're angry in the present moment, then looking at the emotion in a nonjudgemental and curious way. So instead of beating yourself up, acknowledge how you’re feeling and think about ways to cope.
Though it may sound overly simplistic, experts recommend taking a pause when you feel yourself getting angry. This could mean removing yourself from the action, like if you're discussing politics at a dinner party and it gets heated, and slowing things down in some way. Taking this kind of pause is always the first line of defense against problematic anger, Kassinove says. Rather than engaging in a tit-for-tat fight when someone says something hurtful or insulting, try, for example, saying something silly in return – like thanking them – to diffuse things, he says.
Other ongoing approaches for tackling stress, such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation – in which you successively tighten major muscle groups throughout the body then slowly release that tension – are also suggested for addressing chronic anger and the body’s physiologic response to the emotion. “You want to try to get rid of that tension,” Kassinove says.
For some – particularly men – anger, annoyance or irritation may arise from an underlying mood disorder: depression, Schinnerer says. “I think for many men the sadness is too vulnerable a place to go to, so we’ve been socialized to pretty much feel or show that we’re feeling nothing or some degree of anger – that’s safer for us,” he says. So along with paying attention to the anger itself and any environmental triggers – like when you’ve been hurt by someone – consider whether mental health may have a role in chronic anger.
If simple techniques such as increased mindfulness, forgiveness, self-compassion, exercising to relieve tension and breaking from more tense situations don’t do the trick, experts suggest seeking professional help for anger problems, just as you would for depression. Look for mental health experts who have expertise specifically in anger management, Kassinove says. The National Anger Management Association lists professionals, including psychologists, social workers and licensed counselors, who can help people with anger management. But don’t wait for someone else to suggest you seek help for an anger problem.
“People mostly do not seek help on their own. Usually they’re referred by their parent, by their marital partner, by their friend, by their boss. So they come in with a kind of hostile attitude, I would say,” Kassinove says. That, he adds, “makes anger much more difficult to treat than anxiety, because we have to get over that initial hump of denial and a kind of unwillingness to admit that there’s a problem. That’s why you really have to go to a specialized anger management therapist rather than a generic practitioner.”