Is Anger Making You Sick?

Laura Mitchell's picture
By Laura Mitchell on July 26, 2016

Anger has taken on a primary role in our society in recent weeks. Events in the news and the upcoming presidential election have many people feeling angry. While anger is a useful emotion on its own, over time it can take root and be misdirected, affecting our health and our relationships.

We talked with Rick Seidel, Ph.D., L.C.P., to learn more about the effects of anger and how to respond to it in a healthy way. As a clinical psychologist and director of research for Carilion Clinic’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine, Seidel believes that anger is a common response to a perceived injustice.

“Anger serves a useful purpose,” he said. “It tells you two things. First, that your ability to achieve a goal is being blocked, and second, that something is not fair or someone else is not playing by the rules.”

When we respond appropriately to those signals, it can result in collaboration with others, empower us to negotiate more fair and equitable deals and enable us to correct injustices.

Learning to respond appropriately is the key to benefiting from anger instead of suffering its damaging effects.

Physiological Effects
Anger triggers the sympathetic nervous system—our fight-or-flight response. When we get angry, we experience a release of adrenaline, which results in:

  • Faster heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • More rapid breathing
  • Decreased awareness of physical pain

All of these are appropriate physical responses to an immediate threat, allowing us to escape from or fight back against the dangers our distant ancestors faced in the natural world.

However, if the fight-or-flight response becomes a standard part of someone’s coping style, their stress response remains heightened, never quieting down to baseline.

“If someone is chronically angry, quick to jump on someone else, they will have a lower threshold for getting upset,” said Seidel. “They’re already seeing the world as an unfair place so their tendency is to have a negative emotional reaction.”

Chronic anger can lead to:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Hypertension
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Trouble with relationships

Relationship Effects
We no longer live in the small communities of our ancestors, where people learned appropriate, effective behaviors from observing others and receiving ongoing social feedback from many sources. These days we are increasingly isolated and have less exposure to different ways of responding to real or perceived threats.

“People are left to their own devices or the small circle of people around them,” said Seidel. “It can be limiting because people no longer have naturally occurring resources to help them make behavioral changes or course corrections.”

Seidel reports that unresolved anger is often involved when couples seek psychotherapy for marital problems.

“At least one party is usually angry,” he said. “But the anger doesn’t mean you have to hit somebody or that the relationship is over; it means there is something going on, that one or both of the couple is not getting their needs met.”

Over time, those unmet needs and the anger that results can lead to resentment, distance and contempt.

For anger to be useful, the person needs to recognize it as a signal rather than a requirement that they act right away. Taking the time to sort out the source of their distress and understanding what they want from the situation can help generate a more effective response.

Healthy Responses to Anger
When faced with an immediate threat or crisis, our ancestors needed to react immediately. But in the modern world, the issues that make us angry can persist, and resolving them takes ongoing effort, multiple steps and perhaps an extended period of time that includes negotiating with family members, peers, colleagues, friends or neighbors, before a satisfactory conclusion can be reached.

Seidel recommends patience, both in the moment when anger flares and when working to resolve the situations that give rise to it.

“We’re all doing the best we can with what we have to work with at any given time,” he said. “When you feel like speeding up, it’s usually time to slow down.”

These steps can help you understand the cause of your anger and respond appropriately to it:

1. Breathe. Take a break and catch your breath. The standard advice to count to 10 is effective and easy to remember.
2. Assess. Determine whether the injustice you perceive is both true and deliberate. Did that person intend to hit you with their grocery cart, or were they injured, upset about something unrelated, apologetic? Are you really angry at the driver who is moving slowly, or are you carrying anger home with you from an incident at work?
3. Decide. Consider the goal that you would like to achieve, what changes you would like to see.
4. Communicate. Articulate your goal, and steps toward achieving it, to the other party in the situation. State your case dispassionately and be open to negotiation, whether you are wanting a raise at work or for seeking more verbal encouragement from your spouse.

Seidel asserts that this approach is effective both in minor, everyday occurrences and as a means of addressing, and perhaps ending, some of the larger societal issues that result in anger and violence. He cites the opening speech by professional athletes at the 2016 ESPY (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly) awards ceremony as a powerful example of a considered, thoughtful response that encourages collaboration and shared responsibility—much like our distant ancestors responded to and taught each other.

The rush of adrenaline may take some time to dissipate. Seidel emphasizes that being aware of what our body is experiencing, recognizing it as normal and choosing not to react until we have considered it more calmly are important steps toward modulating our response to anger. He suggests that incorporating some healthy lifestyle activities, such as engaging in yoga, mindfulness meditation and exercise can help people be generally calmer and less reactive. 

“Anything that helps us slow down that sympathetic nervous system and burn off the hormones that are released when we get angry can benefit both mental and physical health,” he said.

We all experience triggers that move us toward anger, but the earlier we can learn to recognize the signal, the sooner we can intervene with ourselves to ask “what is this anger telling me?”