Want to live longer? Tame that temper
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured,” wrote Mark Twain.
That anger is destructive to our health and well-being is known to most of us. Yet all of us have a difficult time managing our anger. It’s not for the lack of trying, but because anger is a secondary emotion that we use to disguise our less palatable primary emotions. Sorrow, hurt, embarrassment, fear, shame, regret, apprehension, guilt and embarrassment are all cloaked in the far more acceptable “finger pointing” emotion of anger. After all, it is much easier to be angry than to experience and “be with” these other powerful negative emotions.
The health consequences of this behavioural adaptation are damaging and it’s time we learnt to manage our anger better. Medical research has proven time and time again that anger is toxic for our health and well-being. Aashish Contractor, head of department, rehabilitation and sports medicine at Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital, Mumbai, says, “Anger and anxiety can trigger heart disease and other chronic diseases as well.” There’s also physiological evidence to suggest that mismanaged anger plays a prominent role in the development of chronic ailments like heart disease and cancer. Studies show that IL-6 (Interleukin 6), a prominent immune molecule associated with inflammation and chronic disease, is released into the blood stream when we get angry. Studies also show that increased IL-6 levels in the blood correlate with the development of heart disease and with early death due to chronic diseases. And research shows that IL-6 is also associated with increased levels of fibrinogen and C-reactive protein (inflammation mediators), both of which regulate the build-up of plaque in the arteries. Taken together all this research shows that IL-6 is a player in heart and chronic disease development and hence we want as little of it around as possible on a regular basis but unfortunately it rises when we get angry.
Another study on IL-6 published in December 2016 in the International Journal Of Behavioral Medicine found that in post-menopausal women, a surge of anger resulted in an immediate spike in IL-6 levels. Interestingly, the study revealed that when these women had social support, the spike in IL-6 post the anger-causing stimulus reduced.
The takeaway from this research is that if we haven’t yet learnt to manage our anger, a way to protect ourselves from its long-term damaging effects is to form deeper friendships, strengthen existing relationships and learn to lean on them in times of stress and challenge. Longevity coach David Buettner makes the case for social support in his book, The Blue Zones: Lessons For Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, as well. From his research, he learnt that people who live long disease-free lives have a strong social network.
Getting a counsellor or a life coach can be helpful to manage anger. Juhi Parmar, clinical consultant psychologist, KEM Hospital, Pune, explains, “It is our interpretation of events that hurt us (and produces anger), not the events themselves. Counselling helps identify our values. Our values like honesty, control or justice are the lens with which we judge the events in our world. We can then work on channelizing unhelpful reactions, since we know why we feel a certain way.” We live in a society where we are taught not to express our emotions. However the health consequences of this behavioural adaptation are so damaging that it’s time we learnt to manage our anger better.
The key lies in expanding our self-awareness, be it through counselling, life coaching or otherwise. What helps is to know what we value: integrity, trust, respect, punctuality, beauty, hard work, freedom, etc. Values are not about right or wrong, but what is important to us as unique individuals. Once we know what we value, we can recognize when that value is not being upheld. We then find a way to regain the value in an alternative way.
What also helps is to choose our battles. And we can learn to forgive, like our mothers tell us to.
Sujata Kelkar Shetty, PhD, is a wellness expert and a certified life coach. She has formerly worked as a clinical scientist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, US.