What Anger is Doing To Your Health
“What do you think has more power? Anger or Love?”
“They laughed at me. ‘Anger is more powerful! Of course.’”
Dr. Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., New York Times Best-Selling Author of Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, recalls her experience giving a presentation to a mandated school for kids in the juvenile justice system. She recalls how intimidated she was going through the metal detectors and how nerve-wracking this “gig” was for her. “I don’t work with adolescents or young people anyhow,” and now she faced a room full of angry kids, their arms defiantly crossed across their chest, looking in all directions - anywhere but at her.
“My God,” she thought desperately. “How am I going to get their attention?”
Grasping at straws, she decided to do a demonstration. Praying it would work, she invited one of the students up for a muscle-testing demonstration. She asked him to put his arm up and resist her with all his strength.
“Think of something that makes you really angry,” she told him.
With trepidation, she nervously pushed down on his arm. She was relieved because, despite his size, he was incredibly weak. With very little force, he caved. He couldn’t hold his arm up at all.
“What did you think about?” Dr. Borysenko asked him. He told her a story about his step-father; about how he used to abuse him. There was a lot of sadness and vulnerability beneath the anger.
Dr. Borysenko asked the student to raise his arm again. “Now, bring up an image of love,” she instructed.
Again, she pushed down on his arm but this time she couldn’t move him. He was so strong. No matter what she did, he was immovable.
When asked what he thought of, with emotion he said, “I thought of my little brother and how much I loved him, and how I would do anything to protect him and keep him safe.”
This lead to an incredible discussion with the kids, who were shocked, about how anger might be protective, but how the underlying feelings make us weak.
Anger can be a problem for anyone, but it is particularly challenging for those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). Because of the heightened arousal state common in those who have been exposed to trauma, both the emotional and physical effects of anger are felt more strongly. The biochemical-physiological feedback loop strengthens itself, causing anger to flare up more and more quickly over time while heightening other related symptoms. Sufferers become stuck in the fight-or-flight response, “ready for action,” like a snare trap, set to explode at the slightest disturbance.
Anger is often regarded as a protectant; something that gives the experiencer a sense of power and control. It can be addictive and make you feel good for a breif time. Like many addictions, however, it erodes both your mental and physical well-being, leading to premature cardiac disease, cancer, increased pain sensation, and a multitude of other health problems, not to mention the toll it takes on your life.
Emotions are healthy. They served a purpose in the evolution of our brains and continue to serve the purpose of self-regulation. Anger used to protect us. It protected us against those who got in the way of our goal. It readied us to fight in order to protect ourselves from getting hurt or killed.
Although anger may have once been key to our survival, we are rarely in situations where it serves to protect us today. Instead, it most often corrupts our judgment, poisons our work environment, destroys our relationships, and takes a heavy toll on our physical health.
Anger is a deep visceral emotion, often fed by sadness, fear, and shame. In fact, many different emotions feed anger. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, breaks the core emotion of feeling “mad” into twelve discrete emotions. In a word, it’s complicated.
An important part of understanding anger is understanding what anger does to our brain and body. The first stimulus that activates anger activates the amygdala before we are even consciously aware of it. The amygdala is the integrative center for emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation. It’s part of the limbic system which regulates emotions, our survival instincts, and memory. The amygdala then activates the hypothalamus, which signals the pituitary gland by discharging corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). The pituitary activates the adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys, by releasing adrenocorticotropic hormone (ADTH), stimulating the adrenal glands to secrete stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. But what does all this mean and why is it important?
Elevated cortisol causes increased calcium uptake in neural cells, particularly in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This results in the rapid firing of these cells, resulting in cell death. This loss of neurons in the prefrontal cortex prevents you from using your best judgment. It affects your ability to make good decisions and plan for your future. A loss of cells in the hippocampus weakens short-term memory and prevents you from forming new memories properly. Additionally, too much cortisol decreases serotonin levels. Serotonin is the hormone responsible for happiness. Decreasing serotonin leads to a lower pain threshold, feeling angry quicker, increased aggression and leads to depression.
Cortisol’s effect doesn’t stop with the brain. Cortisol and its accompanying stress hormones, when chronic, wreak havoc on the rest of the body as well. In the cardiovascular system, cortisol increases heart rate, blood pressure, arterial tension, blood glucose, and blood fatty acid levels. When these symptoms become chronic, it increases the risk of both stroke and heart attack.
Within the immune system, increased cortisol reduces thyroid function, reducing the number of natural killer cells. This leads to an increase in virus-infected cells and the incidence of cancer.
Other changes in the body include decreased blood flow to the digestive tract, slowed metabolism, increased internal eye pressure resulting in diminished eyesight, increased migraines and headaches, and decreased bone density. Stress hormones are no joke. The long-term, detrimental effects on our health are staggering.
Anger is one of the most highly reported symptoms of PTSD. It can be challenging to address, but it threatens to destroy your health, your career, and the relationships with those closest to you. Confronting the challenge will transform life and will put you one step closer to living the life you want.
Tyge Aleksander is Transformation Life and Wellness Coach located in New York City who has worked exclusively with individuals and families affected by PTSD, anxiety, and depression since 2013.