Your anger could kill you

Published on 29 June 2020 at 17:20

This may seem like a sensational tabloid headline, and I don’t mean that one day you will probably wind someone up so much that they will murder you (although this could happen) – this is about risks to your health and well-being.

Read on if you don’t believe me. Actually I’d quite like you to read on even if you do believe me!

 

What’s it like to be angry?

Like most emotions, anger can be all-consuming when you are overcome by it. We all have moments when the red mist descends on us and nothing else matters aside from our rage and the need to vent, causing us to behave in a way that we never normally would. Have you ever tried to justify the way you acted when you were in the grips of anger? It’s usually pretty indefensible.

Anger can become habitual. On my drive to work there was a particular junction where cars would drift past me on the right-hand-side and cut in at the last second to continue straight, rather than forking off to the right like they are supposed to do. Their action causes everyone who was in the correct lane to have to brake. This happened most days and I reached the point where I could sense the release of adrenaline and cortisol in my system as I approached this junction, before anything had even happened

By the time I reached the junction I would be primed and pumped, so that when that BMW, Audi or Range Rover darted into the gap that I was doing my best to close, my hands would be gripping the steering wheel with white-knuckle tightness and I would ‘vent my spleen’ with a blast of the horn, a flash of the lights or one of the many universal hand gestures. This would usually precipitate an angry response from the other driver and my adrenaline levels would rise even further. Occasionally, drivers would be so enraged by my reaction that they would do that thing where they suddenly brake hard for no reason, putting me at risk of rear-ending them and causing an accident that would be ‘my fault’.

It was never a great start to my working day to be this agitated, but what I didn’t understand at the time was how damaging this could be to both mind and body.

But it’s good to vent, isn’t it?

Well, no it really isn’t. This is a common misconception. For many years I believed that venting and letting out your anger was a good thing – like releasing a pressure valve.

In fact a study referred to in the Guardian by Luisa Dillner (1) asserts that habitual anger is a higher risk factor is premature death than smoking – particularly in men.

Anger really isn’t good for mind or body. NICABM (2017) shows the process of hormonal reaction to anger through the areas of the brain, all the way down to the adrenal glands at the top of the kidneys. Habitual anger can destroy brain cells in your prefrontal cortex and the increase in cortisol can cause decreased levels of serotonin (the hormone that makes you happy) that can increase aggressive behaviour and lead to depression.

The increase in stress hormones at each anger attack can lead to long-term damage to the heart and cardiovascular system, the immune system, the digestive system and potential problems with eye sight and bone density. It can also cause headaches and migraines.

Anger honestly is not your friend – yet some people still use it as a defining characteristic of themselves. “I’m an angry guy”, almost as if it’s a virtue!

Well, everything has a cost – it might still be worth it

It’s true to say that many people continue destructive habits like smoking or drinking heavily in full knowledge of the cost to their health and life-expectancy. If what it gives them is worth the price of lower life expectancy and risk to their health, then of course they should continue.

Was it worth it for me? I now know that my daily ritual of vitriol against selfish drivers was costing me quite a lot. So what was I getting from it? Let’s think rationally in the cold light of day:

  • Did it get me to work any quicker? ×
  • Did it educate other drivers and change their behaviour? ×
  • Did it make me feel better about myself? ×

Turns out I was being had – paying for something that gave me absolutely no value.

What should I do instead – suppress it?

Don’t get me wrong, anger isn’t all bad – it’s a natural human response and is part of the ‘fight or flight’ safety system which can help us stay safe and defend ourselves in dangerous situations. We shouldn’t try to completely suppress it and become totally passive. The thing is, unlike our ancient ancestors, we are rarely in life-threatening situations and we have developed a tendency to overuse it.

It only becomes a problem when it becomes ‘over the top’ or habitual.

The best way to deal with it is neither venting nor suppression, but avoidance.

Of course it’s not always possible to avoid situations which might make you angry, if I changed my route to work it would have added 20 minutes to my journey.

So – here’s what I did.

  • I would find some quiet time every day to do some relaxation (simple breathing exercises) and think rationally about my anger and how I was paying a high price for something that gave me nothing
  • I tried to embrace a wider perspective. Perhaps some of those drivers were late for something, distracted in some way or hadn’t noticed the signs.
  • I invented a game. For each car that I correctly guessed would cut in I awarded myself a point – deducting a point if I got it wrong. This gave me a paradoxical intention – I wanted to be cut up to earn myself points (even though points didn’t actually mean anything!)
  • In other potential ‘road rage’ situations, I practised STOPP. It’s a bit like an extension of the traditional ‘count to ten’ advice
    • Stop! – Just pause for a moment
    • Take a deep breath and notice your breathing as you breath in and out
    • Observe the thoughts that are going through your mind and any sensations in your body
    • Pull back and add some perspective. Is this important and worth the price? Is there a reasonable explanation and what would I say to a friend who was feeling this way?
    • Practice what works. How can I act that’s in line with my values and what is the most helpful reaction for me and fellow motorists. What else can I focus my attention on?

I can now drive that same route calmly, regardless of the behaviour of other motorists and there is no cost to my health.

I wish I’d done this years ago!

References

Dillner, Luisa (2015), “Is my anger going to kill me?” The Guardian - https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/oct/19/is-my-anger-going-to-kill-me

NICABM (2017) “How anger affects your brain and body” https://www.iahe.com/docs/articles/nicabm-anger-infographic-printable-pdf.pdf


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