Anger can harm your blood vessel function, study shows

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Does it ever feel as if your anger courses through your veins? Well, that isn’t too far off, according to new research.

Feelings of anger adversely affect blood vessel health, according to a study published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

“There have been some studies in the past that have linked the feelings of anger, the feelings of anxiety and the feelings of sadness to heart disease risk in the future,” said lead study author Dr. Daichi Shimbo, professor of medicine in the division of cardiology at Columbia University in New York City.

“This study was meant to figure out, ‘why is that?’” he said.

In the randomized trial, researchers divided 280 participants and gave them a task that made them recall feelings of anger, sadness, anxiety or neutrality for eight minutes.

Before and several times after the task, the researchers took measures of the individuals’ vascular health.

Sadness and anxiety tasks didn’t show a significant change in those markers compared with the neutral task — but anger did, Shimbo said.

“It looks like anger’s adverse effects on health and disease may be due to its adverse effects on vascular health … the blood vessel health itself,” he said.

While the new research is not the first study to make a connection between emotions and cardiovascular impacts, it does shed light on how the connection operates, said Dr. Joe Ebinger, an associate professor of cardiology and director of clinical analytics for the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. He was not involved in the research.

“This is one of the first well-done randomized studies and placebo-controlled studies has really shown us that there are changes in our vasculature that occur acutely in response to the emotions that we’re feeling,” Ebinger said.

Researchers in this study observed three major ways that anger impacted blood vessel health, Shimbo said.

First, it made it harder for blood vessels to dilate in response to ischemia, or a restriction, he said. Anger also affected cellular markers of injury and their ability to repair themselves, Shimbo said.

After the eight-minute task meant to induce anger, the impacts on blood vessels were seen for up to 40 minutes, he said.

That might not sound so bad on its own, but Shimbo said we should be concerned about a cumulative effect.

“We speculate that if you’re a person that gets angry over and over again, that you’re chronically impairing your blood vessels,” he said. “We didn’t study this, but we speculate those kinds of chronic insults from anger can lead to chronic adverse effects of blood vessels.”

Another question that the study didn’t investigate but should be asked next is: What do you do about it?

Anger is a human emotion, and you can’t and shouldn’t avoid feeling it all together, Ebinger said.

The best approach is to learn to process feelings of anger without letting it fester, said Dr. Brett Ford, associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, in a previous CNN article.

Ask yourself: “What might be impeding on your energy or thoughts? What are you protecting yourself from? What do you need that isn’t being met?” said Deborah Ashway, a licensed clinical mental health counselor based in New Bern, North Carolina. Neither Ford nor Ashway was involved in the study.

“And then once you’re aware of it, you’re in control of it. It’s no longer going to control you now,” she said, adding that is the place from which you can decide how to move forward.

This latest study on just how anger affects the body might help in encouraging people who experience a lot of anger to seek behavioral therapies, Shimbo said.

Maybe there are ways — such as exercise or medication — to treat the adverse effects of anger on blood vessels, he speculated.

“Understanding that the mechanism that’s there is the first step in being able to help to treat it,” Ebinger said. “This isn’t about denying anger. We’re all going to experience anger but (it’s about) finding ways for us to be able to both control it and minimize it.”