How even brief episodes of anger can increase the risk

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Experts say it’s important to learn how to control anger when it arises. FG Trade Latin/Getty Images
  • Even brief moments of anger can cause your blood vessels to constrict, raising cardiovascular disease risk, according to a new study.
  • Researchers reported that other emotions such as sadness and anxiety did not provoke a similar response in blood vessels.
  • Experts say mindfulness practice and meditation could help manage anger responses and mitigate the negative health risks of frequent anger episodes.

Getting briefly angry — but not other emotions such as sadness or anxiety — can raise your risk of heart disease and stroke, according to a study published today in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Experts say the findings are not entirely surprising.

After all, “raising one’s blood pressure” is idiomatic for anger, but the researchers from Columbia University in New York wanted to explore what even brief episodes of negative emotions from remembering past experiences do to the vascular system.

Using an established protocol, researchers assigned 280 young adults (average age 26) to one of four tasks designed to trigger an emotional response to anger, anxiety, sadness, or neutrality.

Before, during, and after the tasks, the scientists also measured the participants’ blood vessel dilation and cellular function.

They said they found that participants who experienced a state of anger had impairment in blood vessel dilation in the lining of blood vessels for up to 40 minutes after the initial experience of the emotion. Blood vessel dilation can lead to high blood pressure and related complications, such as heart disease and stroke.

“We saw that evoking an angered state led to blood vessel dysfunction, though we don’t yet understand what may cause these changes,” Dr. Daichi Shimbo, the lead study author and a professor of medicine at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City, said in a press release. “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.”

How well our blood vessels respond to changes can have a strong effect on risks of stroke and atherosclerotic heart disease, experts note.

“Anger and heart disease have been linked for a long time. Anger can release adrenaline bursts, at high levels, which in turn can have a harmful effect on the cardiovascular system,” added Dr. Lou Vadlamani, a cardiologist and founder of VitalSolution, a company that offers cardiovascular and anesthesiology services to hospitals nationwide.

“It can cause vessels to constrict and tighten. This in turn can put pressure on the heart,” Vadlamani, who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today.

According to the study, other emotions, such as anxiety or sadness, did not induce this effect.

However, experts note that doesn’t mean other emotions don’t affect cardiovascular health. It just means none were observed under this particular study mechanism.

“There is a heart condition known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy that is precipitated by a stressful event such as the loss of a home, job, or loved one,” Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a clinical associate professor of medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today. “In this condition, there is a high level of stress hormones that is measurable. Perhaps different emotions have different effects on the cardiovascular system and it would be interesting to explore this further.”

No one can prevent becoming angry from time to time, but there’s good reason to think that trying to remain calm and centered on a regular basis could have long-term heart health benefits.

“I think balancing one’s emotions and learning to deal with stressful situations is most productive,” Vadlamani said. “I know it is very difficult to avoid these emotions given the environment we live in. But things like taking a breath and counting to ten, meditation — they work. I practice these methods and I really find them to be helpful. I can’t say I never get angry, but I try not to have an outburst.”

Goldberg agreed.

“Physical and emotional health are linked, and we should change the way we think about health: health means a healthy body and mind,” she said. “In addition to a healthy diet and exercise for the body, there are other lifestyle practices and exercises for the mind that we can incorporate into our daily lives such as yoga and meditation. These are just a few practices that can help us to manage stressful situations or a spike in emotions that could negatively impact heart health.”

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