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Take Charge of Your Anger to Protect Your Health

Date: November 1, 2012      Publication: Bottom Line Health      Source:  W. Robert Nay, PhD, Georgetown University School of Medicine       Print:

It can contribute to stroke, stomach problems and more.

All you have to do is pick up a newspaper or go online to read a story about the many ways that poorly managed anger ruins lives—in schools, offices, relationships and more. Every week, I treat patients who simply “can’t” control their anger. These are usually good, caring people, but their inability to handle their intense feelings of anger hurts their relationships, their ability to work effectively—and their health.

What anger does to your body and effective ways to defuse it…

YOUR BODY ON ANGER

In small doses, anger can be a helpful emotion—it signals to you and others that important needs are not being met. Perhaps you’ve been lied to by a loved one or feel overburdened by demands from the family.

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If you can learn to manage your irate feelings, you can use them as energy to solve problems. For instance, if you see a neighbor illegally burning leaves, instead of starting an argument, you can remain calm and educate him/her about safer ways to dispose of his trash.

However, if you’re not able to effectively manage anger, it can blaze out of control. When this happens, you feel threatened, and the primitive fight-or-flight response kicks in to prepare your body mentally and physically for survival. Without conscious thought, adrenaline is released, shoulders tense, the heart beats faster and blood rushes to the face, all of which can have a negative impact on your health.

Anger can contribute to…

• Heart attack and stroke. Anger increases your heart rate and blood pressure, raising the risk of developing coronary heart disease (or suffering further complications if you already have it). Because of the fight-or-flight response, your red blood cells become more “sticky” (to increase clotting ability in case you are injured), while your liver releases more fats into your blood (for muscles to burn)—both of which increase odds of a cardiac event.

• Stomach problems. When you’re fuming, blood from your stomach and gastrointestinal (GI) system is diverted to your brain and muscles, which can contribute to stomach upset, acid reflux, nausea, changes in bowel and urination frequency and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

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• Muscle tension. Your muscles tighten in a state of anger—they become poised to help you “fight” or “flee” from the situation. The shoulders, neck, forehead and jaw are all typical hot spots. As anger continues, soreness or musculoskeletal pain may occur.

• Breathing issues. When you’re feeling outraged, respiration speeds up in an effort to deliver blood to the brain and muscles, resulting in shallow breathing and sensations of chest heaviness and throat constriction.

Also, blood vessels in the face, hands and elsewhere constrict during anger. Your face and neck might feel flushed or warm (“hot under the collar”) or may even look bright red.

ANGER MANAGEMENT

If you experience any of these effects, anger is likely impacting your health in a negative way. Besides the symptoms mentioned above, you may notice that you are constantly on edge and have trouble relaxing. You also could have little energy, and the simplest activity might seem overwhelming.

But, if you’re aware of your anger being triggered, you can effectively manage it to help prevent harmful automatic responses from happening and harming your health.

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The following techniques will build your self-awareness and help you better manage your anger by promoting deep relaxation. Do them when you first notice signs of anger in your body. The first step for each technique is to sit down, lean back and let the chair support your back.

• Deep breathing. Relax your stomach muscles and breathe in through your nose, allowing your lungs to completely fill with air and expand into the abdominal area. Exhale very slowly through your pursed lips, as if you were letting air out of a small valve. As you exhale, silently count backward from 10 to one, which helps distract you from thoughts of anger. Doing this can help you feel calm and secure. Many people are so used to shallow chest breathing that this may feel odd at first. It becomes more natural with practice. About 15 minutes before bedtime, practice deep breathing for three to five minutes, so you can use it as needed. It also helps promote deep sleep.

• Progressive muscle relaxation.* Starting with your fists, begin tensing specific muscle groups (in the forearms, shoulders and legs, for example) for 10 to 15 seconds each. Tense each group until it’s quivering. Take a small breath toward the end of the tensing period, then release your breath and the tension. Repeat, then move on to the next muscle group.

Muscle relaxation helps make you aware of when your muscles are tensing and gives you a simple way to relax them. Do this exercise for at least 15 minutes once each day for the first two weeks. Then use when needed.

Time to get help? If you have extreme fight-or-flight symptoms, are getting angry more often or if others are complaining about your temper, seek professional help. Visit the American Psychological Association at http://Locator.APA.org to find an anger-management expert.

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3 SMART WAYS TO DEFUSE ANGER…

• Sit down! Your brain interprets a seated or reclining position as safe and relaxing, interrupting the flow of anger-enhancing adrenaline. The next time you’re in an argument, get yourself (and the other person) to sit down. Say something like, “Let’s sit and discuss this.” If you’re already sitting down when angered, try leaning back and relaxing your muscles.

• Never go to bed angry. Research proves that the old saying is right! A recent study found that hitting the sack after having negative emotions appears to reinforce them. Try to resolve disagreements before saying good night.

• Become an observer. The next time your blood boils, step back and view the situation from a distance. Evaluate how angry you are on a scale of 0 to 100. Then project what may happen if you don’t lower that figure by using some of the techniques here. This will help you remain calm.

*If you have a muscle disorder or chronic pain, check with your doctor before starting this technique as it could worsen these conditions.

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Source: W. Robert Nay, PhD, clinical psychologist and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, DC. The author of Taking Charge of Anger, he is in private practice in McLean, Virginia, and Annapolis, Maryland, and trains professionals in anger management. WRobertNay.com