Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


anger-illo

(ILLUSTRATION: FILE404/SHUTTERSTOCK)

There’s Nothing Cathartic About Expressing Anger

• June 05, 2013 • 2:00 PM

(ILLUSTRATION: FILE404/SHUTTERSTOCK)

A new study of thousands out of Harvard Medical School can’t prove that angry outbursts lead to heart attacks, but it does link the two.

Bottling up emotions is thought to harm both mind and body, but a new study suggests that the opposite extreme may be no better.

In a study of thousands of heart attack patients, those who recalled having flown into a rage during the previous year were more than twice as likely to have had their heart attack within two hours of that episode, compared to other times during the year.

“There is transiently higher risk of having a heart attack following an outburst of anger,” said study author Elizabeth Mostofsky, postdoctoral fellow with the Cardiovascular Epidemiology Research Unit at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

The greater the fury—including throwing objects and threatening others—the higher the risk, Mostofsky’s team reports in The American Journal of Cardiology. The most intense outbursts were linked to a more than four-fold higher risk while milder bouts of anger were tied to less than twice the risk. “The association is consistently stronger with increasing anger intensity; it’s not just that any anger is going to increase your risk,” Mostofsky told Reuters Health.

“Contrary to the urban myth that it’s best to express anger and get it out there, expressing anger takes a toll on your system and there’s nothing really cathartic about it.”

The data came from a group of 3,886 patients who were part of a study between 1989 and 1996 to determine what brought on their heart attacks.

Within four days of having a myocardial infarction—the classic “heart attack”—participants were asked about a range of events in the preceding year, as well as about their diets, lifestyles, exercise habits, and medication use.

A total of 1,484 participants reported having outbursts of anger in the previous year, 110 of whom had those episodes within two hours of the onset of their heart attacks.

Participants recalled their anger on a seven-point scale that ranged from irritation to a rage that caused people to lose control.

The researchers found that with each increment of anger intensity, the risk of heart attack in the next two hours rose. That risk was 1.7 times greater after feeling “moderately angry, so hassled it shows in your voice;” and 2.3 times greater after feeling “very tense, body tense, clenching fists or teeth” and 4.5 times greater after feeling “enraged! lost control, throwing objects, hurting yourself or others.”

The most frequent causes of anger outbursts that participants recalled were family issues, conflicts at work, and commuting.

Although the research cannot prove that the angry outbursts led to the heart attacks, the results “make sense,” according to Dr. James O’Keefe Jr., a cardiologist at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City who wasn’t involved in the research.

Anger is an emotion that releases the fight-or-flight-response chemicals epinephrine and norepinephrine, he said. Those hormones raise our blood pressure, our pulse, constrict blood vessels, make blood platelets stickier (increasing the risk of blood clots), which O’Keefe says could be one way anger may be associated with increased heart risk.

“Contrary to the urban myth that it’s best to express anger and get it out there, expressing anger takes a toll on your system and there’s nothing really cathartic about it,” O’Keefe told Reuters Health. “(Anger) serves no purpose other than to corrode the short and long-term health of your heart and blood vessels,” he said.

In the study, patients on blood pressure medications known as beta blockers had a reduced chance of having a heart attack following an angry outburst, Mostofsky’s team notes in their report. The authors say that finding suggests doctors might consider using those drugs preventively in people at risk of heart attack and prone to anger.

In discussing other possibilities for protecting people at risk, the researchers also write that during the 1990s when the data were collected, not enough study participants were on the newer statin drugs to determine their potential effects on heart attack risk. Similarly, the number of participants who were on antidepressants was too low to tell whether they would have made a difference.

Regular exercise, Mostofsky and her colleagues write, has been shown to lower overall heart attack risk. Though they found no differences in the link between angry outbursts and short-term heart attack risk among regular exercisers in the study, they conclude that maintaining an active lifestyle couldn’t hurt.

The study is part of a broader field of research looking at managing the effects of emotional states on cardiovascular systems, said Donald Edmondson, assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, who studies heart attack survivors but was not involved in the new work.

“People prone to angry outbursts or more broadly, who are prone to anxiety, depression, or other intense emotions should be aware that this is something that impacts their cardiovascular system,” Edmondson told Reuters Health.

Trevor Stokes
Trevor Stokes is a freelance science reporter based in New York City.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.