Friday, February 26, 2010

Angry? It May Not Be So Good For Your Health

“Sorry I’m late,” apologized the manager of a local furniture store who rushed in at 9:15 a.m., a plastic pharmacy bag dangling from her wrist. “I had to stop at the drugstore,” she explained, gesturing to the bag.

“Sick?” The customer asked.

“No,” she rasped. “I was screaming so loudly at my kids this morning that I lost my voice.”

Anger. Rage. Fury. Ire. Wrath. Spleen. Petulance.

The English language has dozens of words to describe an emotion that all of us feel keenly, whether we express it or not.

We all get angry—whether it is at our kids, or at the driver who cut us off at the stop light, or at our boss, or at our editor.

But is anger good for you? Does anger have any health benefits? To lead a healthy life is it better to express anger or suppress it?

There is an abundance of recent health studies that suggest that anger is not good for your health.

For example, one University of North Carolina study, published in the medical journal, The Lancet, showed that men and women who possessed the most anger traits were as much as seven times more likely to develop coronary heart disease.

Another study of anger management in 54 married couples conducted by Dr. Sybil Carrère, Ph.D., similarly found that women who could not control their anger, or who got angry more frequently than they would have liked, had feelings of dissatisfaction in their marriages, higher heart beats, and more trouble decompressing physically after a bout of anger. According to Dr. Carrère, this evidence suggests that women’s cardiovascular health could be jeopardized by frequent anger.

“I just feel clenched,” explains 28-year-old Natasha Pangburn of Eugene, Oregon, who stops talking and feels herself “shutting off” when she gets angry. “If I’m really angry I just turn off. I get this tight feeling. I feel like people don’t understand me no matter how hard I try.”

Pangburn, who has been trying to find ways to express her anger more overtly, believes that anger is harmful and makes intimate relationships strained. “It creates a divide between me and other people."

Kristen Bernard, an obstetric nurse at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital in Vermont, agrees that bottling up anger is not good for you.

“Anger goes along with a whole cycle of health issues,” says Bernard. “I have one client who is angry and has irritable bowel syndrome. This person is getting bleeding ulcers from the tension the anger creates.”

Bernard believes that people need to be encouraged to resolve their anger in order to help them lead healthier lives: “As a health care practitioner, that is one of the first things I focus on—what are you angry about? How can I help you with it? It is my number one priority.”

According to Joni Cohen-Mitchell, Director of the Brick House in Turners Falls, Massachusetts, there are many ways to help people resolve conflicts and diffuse anger. The Brick House runs programs that help people learn to listen to others, to agree to disagree respectfully and then move on, to use humor to break the tension in an angry encounter, to write about their feelings as a way of recording and validating them, and to use “I” statements (“I feel angry,” “I get upset when...”) instead of being accusatory.

Although studies show that people who are angry more often than not—whether they express their anger or suppress it—are at higher risk for heart problems, the American Psychological Association (APA) advocates expressing anger in a controlled way.

According to a brochure published by the APA, “Expressing your angry feelings in an assertive—not aggressive—manner is the healthiest way to express anger. To do this, you have to learn how to make clear what your needs are, and how to get them met, without hurting others. Being assertive doesn't mean being pushy or demanding; it means being respectful of yourself and others.”

According to Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., a world renown specialist on anger and author of the best-selling book, The Dance of Anger, anger is both a natural emotion and an emotion well worth paying attention to.

Dr. Lerner argues that anger can be productive, and that recurring anger can help a person become aware of a more serious underlying problem.

Lerner says anger should not be used as an excuse to blame other people. Instead, anger should be recognized as a signal that harmful behavior patterns need to be changed.

When men and women pay attention to their anger and use it as a starting point to change then anger, according to Dr. Lerner, is something for which we can be grateful.