The link between anger and disease
We are far from perfect creations. But if there is one imperfection that really stands out in us humans, it’s the apparent lack of control we have over our own feelings of anger and resentment. If we believe someone has wronged us, reactions can range from a quiet grudge to a full on rage.
It’s not a nice thing, and I am sure we all have multiple instances in our lives that we look back on with a bit of shame as we consider how our anger-driven actions led us to attack others – with words or even physically.
But aside from the obvious damage that can be done in the moment to ourselves and those around us, it is important to understand how anger and resentment and grudges go to work on our bodies over time. It is a rare person that is naturally able to let go of things quickly – to forgive and forget. For the rest of us, those grudges may be doing their damage on the inside, and in much more serious ways than you might think.
Anger and illness
We will begin with the big one: Anger and hostility are directly and significantly associated with a higher risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) in healthy individuals, and a worsening of the situation in patients with existing heart disease. In extreme situations of explosive anger (such as road rage), it can even cause sudden death.
A number of studies have been carried out over the years, and the evidence points to an unequivocal link between psychological factors and the development and progression of CHD. The findings also suggest that men are at greater risk when it comes to anger’s impact on CHD.
It all starts with our hormones. That inability to let go and forgive puts tremendous strain on our hormonal system. First off we see an increased production of epinephrine and cortisol (the stress hormone), which can lead to a change in heart rate and blood pressure.
Other hormones impacted include estrogen and progesterone, two hormones essential in the female cycle in particular, and paramount for maintaining overall optimal health. Many women already suffer from an imbalance of these hormones, and chronic stress caused by anger and resentment only further exacerbate things.
And it becomes a vicious cycle of sorts because hormone imbalance can itself lead to stronger feelings of anger and resentment due to a general negative view on life that comes when key hormones of the body are not working as they should. There is also the “trickle down” effect whereby progesterone, during times of stress caused by those feelings of anger, can be converted to cortisol – greater production of which can lead to a host of health issues.
A weaker immune system is also often the result of holding onto that grudge, which of course leads to greater risk of viral infection. I think most of us can relate to the impact prolonged periods of stress caused by long working hours have had on our susceptibility to getting colds and flus. Anger and resentment are putting a similar type of stress on your body – if not a more damaging one.
And of course there is the psychological impact. Harbouring anger and resentment over the long-term can result in more serious psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety. For many, this leads to negative behaviors such as smoking, excess drinking, and poor eating. Again we see that vicious cycle where negatives keep feeding the negatives.
What to do
It’s a good idea for all of us to take an honest look at our ability in general to process and manage our emotions in a healthy manner. You can answer the question right now yourself: Are you constantly living with thoughts of anger, resentment, frustrations, general ill feelings towards someone – or any other negative emotion?
If so, you can start off with some books on the topic of mind-body learning. I can recommend “Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment–and Your Life” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and “The Relaxation Response” by Herbert Benson and Miriam Klipper. I’d also recommend activities such as meditation and yoga. If you have never done these, they are worth testing out at some point to see what sort of impact they might have on your overall peace of mind.
It is also a good idea to keep a close eye on hormone levels as we get older. Humans are intensely complex in large part because of the way the many hormones of the human body drive our emotions. A large number of us are living with severe hormone imbalance, and that puts us at an emotional disadvantage that can make little things seem like massive problems.
If none of that helps, seeking out counselling is a wise choice. Staying healthy on both a physical and mental level is crucial for your general sense of well-being. We can go years – or even a lifetime – living with negative feelings that are having a tremendous impact on our overall happiness. Changing the way we see things can be like a massive weight being lifted off our shoulders, making life easier and more pleasant for both you and your loved ones.
Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.