Duke Medicine HealthLine
Published: Nov. 26, 2007
Updated: May 24, 2010
Soothing Your Savage Beast May Save Your Life
What does anger feel like to you? A hat that’s too tight, too-hot soup in your belly, a blanket of burrs? Maybe you feel it in your head, your neck; maybe it grips your chest or curdles in your stomach.
Wherever you feel it and however it feels, anger is an emotion that’s hard to miss. It can feel like it’s filling you up -- or swallowing you whole. So it’s not really surprising that research is showing this potent emotion to be associated with physical health risks, particularly for your heart. However, Duke research is also showing that addressing your anger can actually help lessen it.
Redford Williams, MD, a Duke physician and bestselling author on anger, says that genetic discoveries are helping decipher the biological bases for this destructive emotion. The clues have been found among the genes that help regulate the brain’s serotonin system, which has a powerful effect on mood. “Depending on what variant of the gene a person has,” he says, “That person may be quite anger-prone. Also, his body may respond to anger with a surge in blood pressure. People with this particular genetic predisposition are also at an increased risk for heart attack.”
However, says Williams, learning to effectively deal with anger can actually reduce angry episodes, both in frequency and intensity. He and his wife, Virginia Williams, PhD, have developed anger-management techniques that have been tested among both anger prone people and the general public, in the United States as well as countries from Singapore to Brazil to Hungary. Williams says clinical trials have shown that the techniques help people not only respond to their anger constructively, but also lower their overall anger levels -- as well as their blood pressure and even depression.
Because anger, high blood pressure, and depression are all associated with heart disease, Williams believes that anger management should be a key component of any healthy lifestyle. "We know that for all people, healthy or not, good nutrition and regular exercise are important," says Williams. "I would add anger management skills right there with these other life-enhancing practices."
When you get angry, is it better to keep it in or let it out? Neither, says Redford Williams. Instead, he advises, deal with it. Studies show that practicing strategies for anger management can actually help you feel less angry less often.
In their books Anger Kills and Life Skills, Redford and Virginia Williams outline an essential set of skills that we can all use when we feel angry. They call it their "I Am Worth It" model, and it consists of four questions to ask yourself whenever you feel angry:
“Say you’re speeding along I-40 at 70 miles an hour in heavy traffic,” says Williams. “If someone is riding your bumper behind you, you may answer ‘yes’ to the first three questions. But is it worth it to tap your brakes? You might get him to slow down, or you might cause an accident -- or a road-rage incident.”
Sometimes this simple act of assessing your anger triggers can take the ire out of them. When it doesn’t, Williams recommends soothing yourself through deep breathing, counting, or distraction. “Anger is a vicious cycle that tends to feed on itself,” he says. “It takes self-awareness and a lot of work to reverse the cycle, but the potential benefits -- a longer, healthier life and greatly enriched personal relationships -- make the effort well worth it.”