We all know "that person." You may even be "that person!" You know, the one who is perpetually angry, mad at the world, and is constantly flipping out in traffic, in line at the grocery store or in conversations with family and friends.
Unfortunately, that "hot-headed" attitude does more than damage your image. It can damage your heart. Two recent articles published in the esteemed European Heart Journal this month, along with an editorial by my colleague Dr. Suzanne Arnold, systematically evaluated the link between anger and adverse cardiovascular outcomes.
Researchers found that in the two hours after an angry outburst, a person’s risk of heart attack increased nearly five-fold. The risk of stroke increased more than three-fold and the risk of ventricular arrhythmia (potentially dangerous heart rhythms) also increased. They also found that pre-existing issues such as high blood pressure, smoking, and the presence of known heart disease increased the risk of anger-induced cardiovascular catastrophes.
The effects of these episodes of anger were also found to be cumulative. In other words, the more risk factors you have and the more often the angry outbursts, the higher the risk of heart attack and stroke, especially if you already have a history of heart attack, stroke or diabetes. Though the study’s authors emphasized that anger doesn’t necessarily cause heart problems, it is linked to them and can be the "straw that breaks the camel’s back."
As a physician who has treated thousands of patients who have suffered heart attacks over the course of my career, I have to say that I am not surprised by these findings. Many heart attack patients share this characteristic. In fact, hostility is the only factor trait in the old "Type A Personality" that seems to be toxic for the heart. Other features of this syndrome, such as ambition, chronically feeling time pressure, and conscientiousness appear to be harmless to the heart in the absence of anger and hostility.
Through evolution, our bodies were designed to respond to stress with a cascade of changes, usually referred to as the "fight or flight" response. In times of crisis the heart pumps faster and harder, arteries carry more blood to muscles, and platelets become stickier, making life-threatening bleeding less likely if an attacker takes a bite out of you.
That response may have worked great for our ancestors, but it isn't always best in modern society. If you rev this system up every time someone in front of you in the grocery store's express check-out lane has more than 12 items, your heart and blood vessels will pay the price.
So what's a person to do? If you have a "short fuse," try to relax and tell yourself it’s definitely not doing your heart any good to blow up every time somebody irritates you. Here are four healthy habits to help you "chill out" and resist the temptation to "blow your top."
1. Breathe deep and move. Deep breathing, yoga and exercise are all great ways to reduce stress and improve your heart health. Try signing up for a yoga class or if exercising on your own, enjoy a daily walk. We recommend you exercise 20 to 50 minutes most days. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week, and remember to include 20 to 30 minutes of weight lifting two to three times a week.
2.Eat healthy. I know. It’s easier said than done to eat right, and it’s especially difficult to do if you’re stressed out. But, if you have a poor diet, your body has more difficulty coping with stress, which makes you more vulnerable to. . .you guessed it. . .stress. A healthy diet can help you moderate everything from your blood pressure to your blood sugars to your weight and cholesterol.
3. Sleep tight. A good night’s sleep goes a long, long way toward reducing stress. Just think how exhausted and upset you felt the last time you had two or three sleepless nights in a row. You’ll feel more rested and less likely to anger easily if you get seven and one-half to nine hours of sleep a night.
4. When you feel angry and are about to lash out, stop and count to 10 while you take some slow, deep breaths. This age-old strategy works amazingly well. While you are counting, ask yourself, "Will this incident matter in five years?"
And finally, talk with your doctor about your health habits and mood. We can analyze your cardiac health, offer advice and suggestions for other healthy lifestyle changes, and ultimately keep you and your heart happy!
Drs. Arnold and O’Keefe are cardiologists with Saint Luke’s Cardiovascular Consultants, located in Lee’s Summit at 20 N.E. Saint Luke’s Blvd., Suite 110, 816-931-1883. Also read Dr. O’Keefe’s newsletter, For the Heart, online visit: http://www.saintlukeshealthsystem.org/saint-lukes-cardiovascular-consultants-newsletter