Sometimes anger can be good for you, if it’s addressed quickly and expressed in a healthy way. In fact, anger may help some people think more rationally. However, unhealthy episodes of anger — when you hold it in for long periods of time, turn it inward, or explode in rage — can wreak havoc on your body. If you’re prone to losing your temper, here are seven important reasons to stay calm.
1. An angry outburst puts your heart at great risk. Most physically damaging is anger’s effect on your cardiac health. “In the two hours after an angry outburst, the chance of having a heart attack doubles,” says Chris Aiken, MD, an instructor in clinical psychiatry at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine and director of the Mood Treatment Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“Repressed anger — where you express it indirectly or go to great lengths to control it, is associated with heart disease,” says Dr. Aiken. In fact, one study found that people with anger proneness as a personality trait were at twice the risk of coronary disease than their less angry peers.
To protect your ticker, identify and address your feelings before you lose control. “Constructive anger — the kind where you speak up directly to the person you are angry with and deal with the frustration in a problem-solving manner — is not associated with heart disease,” and is actually a very normal, healthy emotion, says Aiken.
2. Anger ups your stroke risk. If you’re prone to lashing out, beware. One study found there was a three times higher risk of having a stroke from a blood clot to the brain or bleeding within the brain during the two hours after an angry outburst. For people with an aneurysm in one of the brain’s arteries, there was a six times higher risk of rupturing this aneurysm following an angry outburst.
Some good news: You can learn to control those angry explosions. “To move into positive coping, you need to first identify what your triggers, and then figure out how to change your response,” says Mary Fristad, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the Ohio State University. Instead of losing your temper, “Do some deep breathing. Use assertive communication skills. You might even need to change your environment by getting up and walking away,” says Dr. Fristad.
3. It weakens your immune system. If you’re mad all the time, you just might find yourself feeling sick more often. In one study, Harvard University scientists found that in healthy people, simply recalling an angry experience from their past caused a six-hour dip in levels of the antibody immunoglobulin A, the cells’ first line of defense against infection.
If you’re someone who’s habitually angry, protect your immune system by turning to a few effective coping strategies. “Assertive communication, effective problem solving, using humor, or restructuring your thoughts to get away from that black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking — those are all good ways to cope,” says Fristad. “But you’ve got to start by calming down.”
4. Anger problems can make your anxiety worse. If you’re a worrier, it’s important to note that anxiety and anger can go hand-in-hand. In a 2012 study published in the journal Cognitive Behavior Therapy, researchers found that anger can exacerbate symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a condition characterized by an excessive and uncontrollable worry that interferes with a person’s daily life. Not only were higher levels of anger found in people with GAD, but hostility — along with internalized, unexpressed anger in particular — contributed greatly to the severity of GAD symptoms.
5. Anger is also linked to depression. Numerous studies have linked depression with aggression and angry outbursts, especially in men. “In depression, passive anger — where you ruminate about it but never take action — is common,” says Aiken. His No. 1 piece of advice for someone struggling with depression mixed with anger is to get busy and stop thinking so much.
“Any activity which fully absorbs you is a good cure for anger, such as golf, needlepoint, biking,” he says. “These tend to fill our minds completely and pull our focus toward the present moment, and there’s just no room left for anger to stir when you’ve got that going.”
6. Hostility can hurt your lungs. Not a smoker? You still could be hurting your lungs if you’re a perpetually angry, hostile person. A group of Harvard University scientists studied 670 men over eight years using a hostility scale scoring method to measure anger levels and assessed any changes in the men’s lung function. The men with the highest hostility ratings had significantly worse lung capacity, which increased their risk of respiratory problems. The researchers theorized that an uptick in stress hormones, which are associated with feelings of anger, creates inflammation in the airways.
7. Anger can shorten your life. Is it really true that happy people live longer? “Stress is very tightly linked to general health. If you’re stressed and angry, you’ll shorten your lifespan,” says Fristad. A University of Michigan study done over a 17-year period found that couples who hold in their anger have a shorter life span than those who readily say when they’re mad.
If you’re not someone who’s comfortable showing negative emotions, then work with a therapist or practice on your own to be more expressive. “Learning to express anger in an appropriate way is actually a healthy use of anger,” says Fristad. “If someone infringes on your rights, you need to tell them. Directly tell people what you’re mad about, and what you need,” she says.