Question: I have heard that anger and stress are detrimental to heart health. I often react with anger when under stress and lash out at family members. I also tend toward “type A” behavior. I’m worried this puts me in a high-risk category for heart disease. Is anger really the worst emotion for the heart? What suggestions do you have for me?
Answer: Anger is like fire: It has a useful purpose, but it is very damaging when it takes on a life of its own. Anger is a boundary-setting emotion. Although there are times when the expression of anger can be healthy, it often causes more harm than benefit to both the expresser and receiver.
Conventional wisdom used to be that type-A personality traits (being hard-driving and competitive, for example) put a person at risk for heart disease. We now understand, however, that hostility is the dangerous character trait. Hostility has three components that put your heart at risk:
1) Cynicism (an underlying negative belief that other people are inherently unworthy, deceitful, and selfish)
2) Hostile affect, in which the emotions of irritability, impatience, and loathing are dominant
3) Aggressive responding, in which anger and aggression are considered reasonable and justifiable ways of responding to life’s challenges
People who score high on hostility tests have a much greater chance of experiencing serious narrowing of the heart vessels than people who do not feel hostility. Hostile people are also more likely to suffer heart attacks and will probably not live as long as their more relaxed friends.
The most important step you can take to better manage your hostile feelings is to learn meditation. Taking time to quiet your mind will enable you to stay more centered and balanced when things do not go the way you want. When you respond consciously, rather than reacting angrily, you more effectively meet your needs.
In addition, it will help you create overall balance in your daily routine. Get enough rest, don’t skip meals, and engage in regular exercise. Learning to manage your inner tyrant will benefit you, your heart, and the people in your life.