The Gift of Anger
Seven Steps to Uncover the Meaning of Anger and Gain Awareness, True Strength, and Peace
by Marcia Cannon, Ph.D., MFT
Anger and You
A Special Report on the Effects of Anger
By Dr. Marcia Cannon, Ph.D.
(This information was gathered in 2003 and is as important now as it was then.)
We all become angry. Every one of us, at times, experiences this powerful emotion. When we do, we often notice its effects in terms of our muscles tightening, our mood altering, our emotions rising. Through these negative effects, anger gets our attention. Then, if we use our anger positively, it can lead us to greater awareness and healthier behavior. The problem develops when, instead of working with our anger and healing from it, we either act on it without understanding it, or we hold it in.
To the extent that you experience anger without working through it to the point of regaining your sense of calm, studies now show that you are at risk of experiencing a variety of painful, physical effects. Consider the following:
“Modern medicine now has documented proof that emotions such as bitterness and anger can cause headaches, backaches, allergic disorders, ulcers, high blood pressure, and heart attacks.”
Quote from Gregory Jantz, in, Becoming Strong Again, 1999, page 41.
“People who have low anger thresholds have increased chances of developing illnesses ranging from colds to heart disease to cancer.”
Review of a study conducted by University of California/Irvine researchers and reported in Florist Magazine, (May, 2000, Vol. 34, Issue 5, page 20).
“People who experienced chronic anxiety, long periods of sadness and pessimism (that anger can cause)…were found to have double the risk of disease -- including asthma, arthritis, headaches, peptic ulcers, and heart disease.”
Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, 1995, page 169.
“Chronically experienced, suppressed or aggressively expressed anger” can elevate your blood pressure.
Bruce Sharkin, Journal of Counseling Psychology, 1996, Volume 43, Number 2, page 166.
Daniel Goleman, in another quote from Emotional Intelligence, 1995, page 169, discussed a research study focused on whether or not anger might have a significant impact on the functioning of a person’s heart. To test this possibility, a group of patients were monitored while recounting past incidents that had angered them.
“The effect was striking: while the patients recounted incidents that made them mad, the pumping efficiency of their hearts dropped by five percentage points. Some of the patients showed a drop in pumping efficiency of 7 percent or greater – a range that cardiologists regard as a sign of myocardial ischemia, a dangerous drop in blood flow to the heart itself. The drop in pumping efficiency was not seen with other distressing feelings, such as anxiety, nor during physical exertion; anger seems to be the one emotion that does most harm to the heart.”
Lorraine Day, M.D., in her video, “Diseases Don’t Just Happen”, explains that when one is angry, one’s intestine’s cannot work correctly. Therefore, feelings of anger prevent the body from properly assimilating food. (Day, 1998, tape #1)
A study published in the May, 2000 edition of the magazine, Circulation, and reported on the Internet at http://my.webmd.com, studied the effects of anger on the human heart. Researchers recruited 12,986 people living in North Carolina, Mississippi, Minnesota and Maryland. Study participants were asked to agree or disagree with a series of statements such as, “I get angry when I am slowed down by other people’s mistakes,” and “When I get frustrated, I feel like hitting someone.” Researchers kept track of participants for a period six years and found that:
“Those who had the highest anger scores also had the greatest risk of suffering a heart attack or other sudden cardiac death. When compared with the least angry people in the study, the members of the most angry group were nearly three times more likely to have an acute or fatal heart attack over the course of the six years. The angriest folks were also twice as likely as the least angry ones to develop heart disease.”
Another study, this one conducted at Ohio State University and reported in Men’s Health, October, 1994, Volume 9, Issue 8, page 24, suggested that regular angry quarrels might make you sick as a result of the ensuing increase in stress hormones lowering the effectiveness of your immune system.
A final study of the potential physical effects of unhealed anger, this one found on the Web site, NewsRx.com, and appearing in the July, 2003 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, is the first to link anger to impaired artery function in healthy women. The study suggested that Type A behavior, such as anger, may affect the part of your body’s nervous system that controls blood vessel function. The potential result is impaired artery function and a greater risk of heart disease.
The physical effects of anger are frightening enough to motivate many of us to decide to do something to heal our angry feelings. For those still unmoved by all the many studies that show the physical dangers of remaining angry, there are other reasons, as well, for choosing to heal from your anger. In fact, using your anger as a starting point for healing is crucial, not just to your physical health, but also to your mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.
Our cultural beliefs about anger cause us to think in divisive terms. We separate people into categories of “good” and “bad”, “friend” and ‘enemy.” We do the same to ourselves when our anger is self-directed. Thus, by remaining angry, our trust in ourselves and in others is weakened, rather than being a strong, stable, unifying anchor in our lives.
Along with a diminished sense of trust in ourselves and in others, the high mental cost of holding onto anger also includes anger’s negative affect on our memories, our ongoing mood, and our performance. According to Dr. Candace Pert, Ph.D., Molecules of Emotion, 1997, page 144,
“…positive emotional experiences are much more likely to be recalled when we are in an upbeat mood, while negative emotional experiences are recalled more easily when we are already in a bad mood. Not only is memory affected by the mood we are in, but so is actual performance.”
Those who do not make healing from anger a goal suffer emotionally as well. Jared Pingleton, writing in the Journal of Psychology and Theology, 1997, page 409, discusses the fact that remaining angry keeps us focused on past hurts and potential unfairness, rather than on present enjoyment. He states that:
“Hanging onto grudges and entertaining vengeful fantasies ultimately weakens rather than empowers the self…because whatever we do not forgive we are doomed to live. Perhaps we are never more controlled by an offender than when we choose not to forgive.”
Caught up in memories of past angering situations, we often feel depressed. Focused angrily on the future, we often experience anxiety. The only ones who seem to benefit from our misplaced focus are the pharmaceutical companies. Anti-depressive and anti-anxiety medications abound while we, all too often, miss the present moment in time, the one moment that offers us each a chance for new joy.
Not only does unhealed anger affect us physically, mentally and emotionally, it also affects us spiritually. Spiritually, our beliefs about anger keep us from trusting and honoring the sacred in ourselves and in each other. Years ago, the first picture of our small, lovely planet was photographed from outer space. Looking at that photo reminded us that we are all human beings, interconnected and interdependent, living together on our one, shared, precious home, Earth.
Rather than experiencing and acknowledging the oneness of all life, unhealed anger keeps us focused on the differences between us and our neighbors and the potential dangers those differences seem to imply. Continued over time, such thinking becomes a habit, a pattern that has limited our growth as humans and kept us from experiencing the richness of our combined cultures. Each of us who hold onto anger rather than working toward healing contributes to this misfortune. As Michael McCullough, Ph.D., Steven Sandage, and Everett Worthington Jr., Ph.D. state in, To Forgive Is Human, 1997, page 15:
“If you bitterly held onto the hurt, it disturbed your peace. If you allowed anger and hurt feelings to creep into your soul, you might have disturbed the peace of your family, friends or coworkers. If you passed along your irritation to others, you may have seen the negative effects of your own pain ripple throughout your family, community or workplace.”
Most of us do not realize what a powerful effect our choices have, both on ourselves and on each other. If you are in this group, hopefully this report has opened your eyes. It is never too late to change your behavior. It is never too late to turn your life around. As you make the choice to heal from your own anger, you initiate a change that can improve your life dramatically. And by your changed behavior, you help initiate a positive change for everyone else around you.