Published: Oct. 17, 2006
Updated: Mar. 29, 2010
Hostility and your heart
Your heart pounds. Your temples throb. Your shoulders tighten. You find yourself thinking some distinctly uncharitable thoughts.
We've all felt anger at one time or another. But if you get angry too often, there's a measurable risk that anger might one day get you. As Duke's Redford Williams, MD, put it succinctly in the title of the bestselling book on the topic that he coauthored with his wife, Virginia Williams, PhD, Anger Kills. He's devoted the last several years of his career to raising awareness of the health dangers of anger and helping people learn how to control it.
The emotion we perceive as anger -- whether it's mild irritation or off-the-charts rage -- causes a cascade of physiological effects known as the fight-or-flight response. As adrenalin levels spike, blood pressure and heart rate surge; meanwhile, the body's immune response is suppressed.
A 40-year study of nearly 800 men found that those with hostile tendencies were more likely to develop heart trouble; a 25-year study conducted by Williams found that hostile men also tended to have less healthy habits, such as smoking.
Williams likens habitual anger, and the behaviors that tend to accompany it, to taking "a little bit of arsenic every day. It may not kill you right away -- but, eventually, it could be lethal."
In their book, and in the training sessions they offer through their LifeSkills program, the Williamses outline a variety of techniques to help people overcome anger. The first step: A "hostility log" to record the specifics of anger episodes and reveal patterns, triggers, and responses.
Another key strategy is what the couple calls its "I Am Worth It" model:
I : Is this matter important to me?
A: Are my thoughts and feelings appropriate?
M: Is the situation modifiable?
Worth It: Is taking action worth it?
Avoiding situations and people that push your buttons, whether it's an annoying neighbor or rush-hour traffic, is one obvious way to reduce your anger quotient. When you're caught in an aggravating situation, counting to 10 -- or 100 -- before reacting may seem overly simple, but can work surprisingly well. Learning to lighten up and laugh at minor irritations is invaluable.
Not that you always can, or should, turn the other cheek: When a situation rightfully gets your goat, says Williams, it’s worth taking calm, specific steps to identify and address it.
Williams readily admits that his professional interest in anger grew out of a personal struggle to master his own "Type A" tendencies toward impatience and hostility. "Anger is a vicious cycle that tends to feed on itself," he says. "It takes self-awareness, will power, and a lot of work to reverse the cycle. But the potential benefits -- including a longer, healthier life and greatly enriched personal relationships -- make the effort well worth it."