Getting Angry Can Harm Your Body

Angry driver screaming at someone in a traffic jam | Image by New Africa/Shutterstock

Recalling past experiences that evoke feelings of anger can negatively impact the ability of blood vessels to relax, which can result in restricted blood flow and may increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, according to a new study.

The study, published in May in the Journal of the American Heart Association, examined anger, anxiety, and sadness and their emotional impact on the heart.

“Impaired vascular function is linked to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke,” said Dr. Daichi Shimbo, professor of medicine at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City and lead author of the study, in a press release. “Observational studies have linked feelings of negative emotions with having a heart attack or other cardiovascular disease events. The most common negative emotion studied is anger, and there are fewer studies on anxiety and sadness, which have also been linked to heart attack risk.”

The 280 adult participants in the study were divided into four groups and assigned one of four eight-minute tasks.

The first group recalled a memory that made them angry; the second group recalled a memory of anxiety; the third group read a selected text that evoked feelings of sadness; and the fourth group repeatedly counted to 100 to achieve an “emotionally natural state.”

Researchers monitored the cells lining the participants’ blood vessels before they did the tasks and at several points after the tasks were completed. They looked for evidence of impaired blood vessel dilation, increased cell injury, and reduced cell repair capacity.

The task of recalling an event that made participants angry resulted in impaired blood vessel dilation, which lasted for approximately 40 minutes after the task was completed. The other tasks produced no changes in the participants’ blood vessel linings at any point.

“We saw that evoking an angered state led to blood vessel dysfunction, though we don’t yet understand what may cause these changes,” Shimbo said. “Investigation into the underlying links between anger and blood vessel dysfunction may help identify effective intervention targets for people at increased risk of cardiovascular events.”

“We speculate over time if you’re getting these chronic insults to your arteries because you get angry a lot, that will leave you at risk for having heart disease,” Shimbo told The Wall Street Journal.

Dr. Glenn Levine, who previously authored a 2021 American Heart Association statement on the mind-heart-body connection, said that the study adds to prior findings.

“This study adds nicely to the growing evidence base that mental well-being can affect cardiovascular health and that intense acute emotional states, such as anger or stress, may lead to cardiovascular events,” said Levine.

“For instance, we know that intense sadness or similar emotions are a common trigger for Takatsubo cardiomyopathy, and events such as earthquakes or even as a fan watching a world soccer match, which provoke stress, may lead to myocardial infarction and/or to arrhythmias,” he added.

“This current study very eloquently shows how anger can negatively impact vascular endothelial health and function, and we know [that] vascular endothelium, the lining of blood vessels, is a key player in myocardial ischemia and atherosclerotic heart disease. While not all the mechanisms on how psychological states and health impact cardiovascular health have been elucidated, this study clearly takes us one step closer to defining such mechanisms.”

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