Cardiac-Consuming Fire

Learn how to cool off anger before your heart gets burned.

By Lisa James

February 2006

"Forego your anger for a moment and save yourself a hundred days of trouble,” advises an old Chinese proverb. Save yourself a heart attack is more like it: The links between seeing red and going code red are clear—and sobering. High levels of anger and hostility have proven as dangerous to the heart as smoking and high cholesterol; in one study, the researchers actually said that “hot tempers predicted disease long before traditional risk factors like diabetes or hypertension became apparent” (Archives of Internal Medicine 4/02).

Contrary to common belief, men aren’t the only ones whose hearts can be ruined by rage. Scientists have found that a sudden burst of anger (or grief, or shock) can cause heart failure especially among women, in a little-understood phenomenon nicknamed “broken heart syndrome.” Children aren’t immune, either. Angry kids as young as eight may already have the beginnings of heart disease.

Hostility’s Hazards

Part of the angry-man-with-heart-problems stereotype lies in the typical “type A” personality: the loud, hard-charging guy who wears a perpetual scowl and drives like a lunatic (often with the words “take it easy” from his partner and co-workers ringing in his ears). The problem, though, lies not in anger, but in what you do with it. “You act in anger when you constructively solve problems in your life,” says John Lynch, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of When Anger Scares You (New Harbinger). “You act in rage when you destructively solve problems.” And it’s rage—along with rage’s close cousin, hostility—that helps destroy well-being.

Rage and hostility can harm the heart even, perhaps especially, when driven deep into one’s psyche, leading to what is called a “type D” (as in “distressed”) personality. Lynch calls such folks “anger avoiders” and notes that the energy it takes to suppress angry rage leaves “fewer resources, such as resiliency, tolerance or determination, to handle other stressors and demands.” Avoidance also tends to create the kind of low-level depression that makes leading a heart-healthy lifestyle (such as eating right and exercising) seem like a chore.

Anger Management 101

The way you learned to deal with—or not deal with—anger is rooted in your childhood. Fortunately, you can learn to respond differently to the ire-provoking challenges we all face in our work, relationships and day-to-day lives.

Tracking your emotions in a journal can lead to self-insight. “Anytime you begin to feel upset or distressed, stop and notice what you are feeling and how intense it is,” write Arthur Nezu, Christine Nezu and Diwakar Jain in The Emotional Way to Cardiac Health (New Harbinger). “Then put the feeling into words.” This allows you to find out what triggers your irritation: Do you feel fearful? Frustrated? Sad? Threatened?

Clarifying your emotions will allow you to develop a more helpful reaction than either screaming or withdrawing. Stop yourself from calling other people names, even in your head—
muttering “you moron” when someone cuts you off on the highway does nothing but raise your blood pressure. Stop thinking that others are doing things you don’t like just to drive you nuts; the whole world isn’t out to get you. And as tough as it is, admit your own weaknesses. No one’s perfect—not even you. The less hostile you are, the less hostile (or defensive) the people around you will behave.

Avoiding the hostility trap does you no good if you simply then fall into the depression trap. “The inaccuracy of depressive thoughts often lies in their exaggerated, magnified and over-generalized nature,” say the authors of Emotional Way, and they’re absolutely right. Instead of telling yourself, “I always fail” when something goes awry at work, say, “Gee, I guess this didn’t work out.” Find a trusted friend you can bounce your musings off of; it’s easier for somebody else to find the flaws in your thought patterns (and for you to do the same for them). The idea is to brighten the tone of that constantly chattering inner voice, which in turn will help brighten your emotional state.

Finally, forgive. Yes, it does feel good to play the victim, at least for a while. But eventually victimhood takes its toll spiritually, emotionally and physically. In one study, people who were asked to reflect about someone who had hurt them experienced higher heart rates and blood pressure; when then asked to put themselves in the offender’s shoes, these vital signs remained stable. “I believe that it’s very important for each of us to take responsibility for our own happiness,” says

Gerald Jampolsky, MD, who has written extensively on the subject. “It doesn’t mean agreeing with an act...but it does mean a willingness to no longer hold onto the painful past and the anger that’s still inside.” While you’re at it, don’t forget to forgive yourself; we are all often our own worst enemies.

Rageful anger, open or suppressed, draws its heart-harming power from the isolation it imposes. Break through by finding better ways of resolving the conflicts that come with being human.

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