Anger Can Kill!

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

A short fuse can indeed shorten your life! Anger can get you into cardiovascular trouble, and deep trouble at that. When you get fired up emotionally, you’re doing the equivalent of putting a torch to your arteries. Medical research has repeatedly documented the danger of anger and chronic stress.

Here are two examples from my own personal and professional life:

When I was 13, my grandmother died from a massive stroke. I recall asking my father what had caused her stroke. He said that his mother’s oil burner had started smoking and she became emotionally upset about it. Within a few minutes she became confused, and then collapsed to the floor.

Later in life, I became keenly aware of how such a thing could happen and happen so suddenly. As a doctor, I studied the psychological connection to the heart and physical disease, and I frequently dealt with the consequences of stress and anger in patients’ lives.

I recall vividly the case of an attorney whose new, fancy car was scratched from one end to the other by a teenage punk. The lawyer, when he saw the damage, became enraged and had a heart attack on the spot. I treated him later in the emergency room and he was still highly agitated. I calmed him down. The car wasn’t worth the price of his life, I said.

Don’t sweat the small stuff because it is all small stuff…

That’s what I told all my patients who were stressed to the gills and who were angry people. I would tell them about the lawyer and my grandmother, and about Bob Eliot, a great cardiologist from whom I learned a great deal.

While standing at a hospital podium in the mid-1970s and delivering a lecture on how to prevent heart attacks, Eliot suffered a heart attack. He was only forty-four-years-old.

Eliot survived the event and made a full recovery, during which time he recognized that stress had taken him down. He realized he had to make dramatic lifestyle changes or else he would be a goner. He was his own first stress patient, as he put it.

With a new lease on life, he went on to establish the Department of Preventive and Stress Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He became an outspoken advocate for productivity without self-destruction.

Eliot came to national attention with his popular book Is It Worth Dying For? (New York: Bantam, 1984).  He advised that the best way to handle stress − particularly intense situations of hostility, anger, and explosive rage − was to be aware that these emotions carry a heavy price, including the potential for sudden death. His mantra was: “don’t sweat the small stuff….it’s all small stuff anyway.”

I highly recommend his book, still very relevant after all these years. It is a humorous read about a serious subject. The title of the book is perfectly crafted. Is any emotional event really worth dying for?

The fact is that a short fuse doesn’t make for a long life. And if you have high blood pressure to boot, it’s important to recognize your vulnerability and explore ways to cope.

For your arteries, stress is really like an arsonist with matches in one hand and a gasoline can in the other. You must disarm this perpetrator before it hurts you.

And can it ever hurt you!

Chronic anger and stress cause your body to over-secrete stress hormones and chemicals. Growing evidence indicates that overproduction stokes inflammation and a wide variety of illnesses, including cardiovascular disease. Arteries constrict, causing blood pressure to rise and the heart rate to go up.

Acute situational anger can actually promote clot formation. This effect may benefit a soldier exposed to life-and-death combat situations, because you want more clotting should you become wounded. The clotting slows down or plugs up blood loss. It’s not so good, however, for everyday life. You don’t want blood with the consistency of red ketchup. You want it to flow like red wine and reach the nooks and crannies of your body through thousands of miles of tiny capillaries. The thicker and stickier your blood, the greater your risk of cardiovascular and other circulatory problems, such as diabetes.

Anger by the numbers

In the 1990s, a series of Harvard studies on anger and its effect on the heart identified anger as a common trigger of heart attack and life-threatening arrhythmias.  Lead researcher Murray Mittelman, M.D., of the Institute for Prevention of Cardiovascular Diseases, concluded that “the scope of the problem is sizeable − at least 36,000 (2.4% of 1.5 million) heart attacks are precipitated annually in the U.S. by anger.”

In his latest study, published in 2013, Mittelman and colleagues investigated the question of whether greater levels of anger intensity mean greater levels of heart attack risk. To find out, they analyzed the database of the Determinants of Myocardial Infarction Study containing information from almost four thousand individuals who had experienced a heart attack. The results revealed that 38 percent of the participants had had outbursts of anger in the year before their heart attack, and within this subgroup, there was a stunning two-and-a-half fold incidence increase risk of heart attack within two hours of the outburst compared to other times.  And yes, they found, the more intense the anger, the greater the risk.

Looking at stroke, Israeli researcher reported in 2004 on a study of 200 consecutive patients who had experienced a mini-stroke (TIA). Their investigation showed that anger and intense negative emotions could increase the risk of stroke by as much as 14 times.

The Sinatra Solution

It’s easy to say calm down in order to save your life. But it is not always so easy to do it if you are in a bad relationship, bad job, or otherwise bad situation in life.

Nevertheless, you must find a way to curb your emotions or run the definite risk of killing yourself slowly or quickly.

The minute your blood boils over about something in your life the first thing that should come into your mind is the following question: Is this upset or argument worth dying for?

That’s a terrific way to put on the brakes and defuse a potential explosive situation.

Beyond that there are many other effective things you can do if you have an anger problem. People who recognize their emotional issues, and find ways to deal with them, become less prone to angina, irregular heartbeat, heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure. And common colds, as well.

Seek a professional therapist to help guide you. Confide in a loved one. Reach out. Admit you have a problem. Talking about it may help you find a solution.

But do something. Your health, and your life, could depend on it.

The mind/body angle is grossly overlooked in our medical profession that has become obsessed with sophisticated diagnostics, microsurgery, and drugs. Emotions are fundamental to all of us. They can heal us…and they can also harm us. And kill us.


© 2013 HeartMD Institute. All rights reserved.

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