The Anger and Health Connection: How Being Angry Affects You

By Val Silver

What is the connection between anger and health? When is anger healthy? What happens to my mind, body, and relationships when I hold onto my anger instead of expressing it? What happens to me when I'm in a rage?

Whether you suppress, control, or let your fury go full force, anger can affect your health, well-being, and relationships for better or worse. 

Anger affects your mental and physical health in basically the same ways as stress because anger is a type of mental distress. Stress hormones are released when your anger is triggered. If this happens often enough it can negatively affect your health on many levels. 

What is Anger?

Anger is a type of mental distress that manifests itself in a powerful way. You may get upset because you feel powerless, out of control, or you are reacting to what someone else did or didn't do that you perceive as negative.

People are triggered into anger for different reasons. You may feel overwhelmed, frightened, judged or judgmental, violated, or upset about the violation of another.

When you feel out of control and fearful about some aspect of your life, your body's stress response prepares you for fight and flight. Perhaps you freeze. Feeling angry and acting out in anger either by seething, yelling, raging, stomping, throwing things and fighting verbally and/or physically is the fight response in action.

An important point to consider is that these feelings are often driven by fear, even if you don't consciously feel fearful. Feelings of anxiety and anger arise when you perceive a situation as threatening or out of your control. Sometimes this fear is well founded, and sometimes it is just the imaginings of your mind. You can be triggered so quickly you don't even realize it happened, or as you think about things your emotions are ignited. 

anger and fear, fear only exists in the mind quote Dale Carnegie

When you get triggered, your body changes biologically to help you survive the stressful event. Then, when you no longer feel threatened, your body must restore function and repair itself from the effects of anger and its accompanying stress. Keep in mind that this is true even if your angry outbursts occur only in your mind. To your body it is the same thing. 

How well you express your angry feelings, or not, as well as the frequency and intensity of your outbursts, determine whether you express anger in healthy or unhealthy ways. It determines if you use anger to resolve issues or to blow off steam. It determines whether it will motivate you and move you forward in life or whether it will keep you stuck and make you sick.

Types of Anger

Anger manifests in different ways and has different targets. You may feel mildly annoyed, red with rage, or somewhere in between. You may feel angry at yourself, upset about a situation, or disappointed in someone else.  You may get angry once in a while or you may have chronic anger that simmers beneath the surface that is ready to boil at the slightest provocation. 

Healthy Anger

Anger is often labeled as a negative emotion. Likewise, people who openly express their frustration loudly or 'inappropriately' are sometimes judged as having anger issues. Expressing anger, even appropriately, can make people feel uncomfortable and threatened.

Despite this fact, anger can be constructive and provide fuel for change and right action. So-called negative thoughts and emotions, can be quite positive when explored and channeled wisely. Exploring your frustration with an open heart shows you where you feel fractured as a person and undervalued by yourself and others. It shines a light on how people are pushing your boundaries and where your boundaries need to be fortified with a "No". 

Healthy anger is energizing. It moves energy inside you in a positive way. When consciously channeled in an assertive, not aggressive way, it provides powerful motivation for you to share your wants and needs and reinforce your boundaries which leads to healthier relationships. It listens as well as speaks, and is open to creative resolutions that benefit everyone involved. 

Even occasional moderate or strong outbursts can be healthy anger, especially when you are aware of your triggers, and use it as a guide to improve your life. Giving voice to your frustrations helps you blow off steam. When expressed with the positive intention to increase awareness of yourself and your situation, it can wake you up and help you ferret out unresolved or suppressed anger problems causing an undercurrent of dis-stress in your life.

Healthy anger provides the fuel you need to make positive and sometimes difficult changes in your life, improving your mental and physical health and happiness. Expressing your needs and feelings with positive intent, and then letting go of anger in healthy ways feels cleansing, energizing, and empowering.

Unresolved and Suppressed Anger 

Anger becomes unhealthy when you make a habit of it or you suppress it or hold it in. Perhaps you ignore its existence, either purposely or subconsciously. Denying how you feel robs you of happiness as it festers inside you like an infected sore. It becomes unhealthy when it is pushed so far down that you don't even realize you are enraged until something or someone triggers you.

Imagine what it is doing to yourself physically and mentally as you live with resentments, guilt and blame day after day. Not only does it make you miserable, but the stress is hard on you. Worse yet, the neuro-pathway for all that anger created in your brain perpetuates it - yikes!

Unresolved anger and health issues go hand in hand. Your emotional upset keeps you in a steady state of dis-stress of mind, body and spirit. Even if you try to cope and hold it in, your true feelings usually find a way to leak out.

Signs that you may be dealing with known or repressed unresolved anger issues:

  • sarcasm and snide remarks
  • cynicism
  • bitterness
  • lack of forgiveness of self or others
  • you feel like giving up. "What's the use?"
  • guilt and shame
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • manipulation
  • explosive rage
  • quick to anger
  • nastiness or meanness
  • withdrawal from social contact
  • passive-aggressive behavior - saying one thing and doing another
effects of anger quote Emerson

Unresolved Anger and Health Issues

Whether you express and use anger in healthy or unhealthy ways determines whether it primarily affects your well-being for better or worse. 

Explosive anger or rage (whether expressed or acted out in your mind) is especially damaging to your health. You know what that feels like. You see 'red', your palms sweat. You may shake, yell, and clench your fists. You feel like a volcano ready to erupt as blood pressure sky rockets. You strike out physically or verbally.

The adrenaline rush of strong anger may temporarily feel empowering and stress-relieving. Unfortunately, it puts your body under pressure and uses up a lot of your vital energy. High cortisol levels associated with the fight stress response are especially damaging if these events occur regularly.

These explosions can leave you feeling guilty and drained. They can cause irreparable damage to your reputation, relationships and career in a matter of moments. Both explosive and suppressed anger put you at greater risk for heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure and coronary disease. 

Unresolved anger and health related issues can also manifest as:

  • digestive issues
  • headaches
  • skin problems
  • anxiety
  • insomnia
  • depression (especially in women)
  • high blood pressure
  • chronic stress.

This is no surprise since girls are often taught that expressing angry feelings is unacceptable. They suppress their true feelings which fester and manifest as more 'acceptable' mental and emotional problems.

Physical Causes of Anger

If you aren't an angry person by nature and you start to get triggered by situations and people that rarely disturbed your peace of mind, there may be a physical reason for your mental state. Imbalances in your body may be behind your anger. Just as emotions can cause physical problems, the reverse is also true.

Brain tumors, biochemical changes or disease can cause short and long-term behavioral changes.

Women with premenstrual syndrome or postnatal depression are all too familiar with the effects of disrupted hormones on stress levels and emotions. They may be easy going 20 days of the month but on day 21 watch out. Irritability and anger problems seem to surface out of nowhere.

Sometimes this emotional nastiness is all about hormones. However, if the same issues only bother you during 'that time of the month', every month, it may be worth exploring your situation and feelings further. Don't just assume it is hormones. It may very well be that your hormonal changes are surfacing suppressed emotions in need of healing and resolution. 

Summary: The connection between your anger and health can have its roots in physical issues or be related to stress. The effects of anger on your overall health and well-being are closely related to how stress affects your health. A little bit, well used, can be good for you. Too much, too often, will take its toll. 

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Anger and Health Connection page updated 04/2020

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