When it comes to anger, the heart-brain connection is strong. We know from studies that men who are quick to anger are more likely to develop premature heart disease and five times more likely to have an early heart attack. This was discovered in a 36-year study at John’s Hopkins of more than 1,300 medical students who were quick to anger during periods of stress.
“In the 1970s, we were focused on the hyper ‘Type A’ personality and we hypothesized that this was bad for the heart,” says Leo Pozuelo, MD, section head of Consultation Psychiatry and staff at the Heart and Vascular Institute. “Over time and study, we’ve come to find that it is the specific characteristic of anger – or hostility – that stresses the heart and leads to an eventual cardiac event.”
4 ways stress and anger affect your body
Dr. Pozuelo calls out four specific body mechanisms that happen with the stress/anger response:
- Increased cortisol levels
- Increased reactivity of the platelets
- Alterations of the natural autonomic tone that we have in the heart
- Increased inflammatory markers
Dr. Pozuelo has seen the challenge some of his male patients face. “It is often more difficult for people to change when they keep things inside and have a personality construct that hostile,” he explains. “This is more often associated with men.” He points out that social inhibition is also associated with cardiac disease.
A ‘how to’ on anger management
Unfortunately, a cardiac event may be the first thing that drives a patient with anger issues to seek help. This is when a good cardiac rehabilitation program can change someone’s life. The elements of cardiac rehabilitation include exercise, diet changes and stress management techniques.
A good cardiac rehabilitation program will also address anger issues by increasing a patient’s physical activity and teaching ways to manage stress. This might include breathing techniques, yoga and other relaxation techniques.
“In cardiac rehab, people learn about the emotional aspects of wellness,” says Dr. Pozuelo. “It’s about taking the time to examine your response to things and learn that you have control over your behaviors.”
Seeking treatment can save your life
The proof is in the patient success stories. Upon completion of the 12-week Cleveland Clinic Cardiac Rehabilitation Program, a majority of patients report a marked improvement in their quality of life both physically and emotionally.
Dr. Pozuelo points out that ideally a person would modify their anger/hostility response to stress before a cardiac event happens. Men who currently have anger issues need to consider their heart health.
“It’s not always easy, but learning to manage your anger will improve your quality of life and can save you from a detrimental medical outcome,” he says.