What organ gets affected by anger?
Can always staying positive be bad for our health?
Searching for a silver lining could be a good coping mechanism, but studies show suppressing emotions to stay positive can negatively affect our health.
In Australia, it seems our society values the idea of staying positive given some of our common daily sayings like “she’ll be right” and “no worries”. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; a 2021 study found that positive psychological skills can help to reduce mental illness and maintain mental health – even during a pandemic.
But if you’re having a tough time, stifling your negative thoughts doesn’t make them go away. Instead, bottling up emotions can be unhealthy for your mind and body.
A series of studies over the past few decades show that suppressing your emotions can – and does – affect your body and your mind. In fact, a 2019 study from the International Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research found that an ongoing reliance on concealing or suppressing emotion is a “barrier to good health”.
An earlier study by the Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester showed people who bottled up their emotions even increased their chance of premature death from all causes by more than 30%, with their risk of being diagnosed with cancer increasing by 70%.
Why suppressing emotions can be bad for your health
It’s not just your long-term health that can suffer if you suppress your negative emotions. A 2021 study conducted in Italy during the first wave of lockdowns showed that when we regulate or ignore our emotions, we can experience short-term mental and physical reactions as well.
“Suppressing your emotions, whether it’s anger, sadness, grief or frustration, can lead to physical stress on your body. The effect is the same, even if the core emotion differs,” says provisional clinical psychologist Victoria Tarratt. She says the resulting emotional stress can impact your blood pressure, memory and self-esteem.
Longer term, there’s an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, says Victoria. And avoiding emotions can also lead to problems with “memory, aggression, anxiety and depression”.
A study from the University of Texas found that by not acknowledging our emotions we’re making them stronger.
“For example, you might be angry at your brother and after stewing in your anger, not saying a thing, you could encourage an emotional outburst,” says Victoria. “So when you’re driving the car a few weeks later and someone cuts you off, you can get all-out road rage, causing an accident. That explosion and overreaction to a situation is your body’s way of releasing that pent-up emotion.”
How to deal with toxic positivity
Sometimes the pressure we feel to stay positive can be internal, and sometimes it can come from our friends and the society we live in, including from social media. But studies have found that well-meaning advice like “everything will be fine”, “onwards and upwards” and “it could be worse” can be just as unhelpful as our own internal pressure to suppress our emotions.
A study from the University of California found that a “cultural pervasiveness to seek or value happiness can represent a risk factor for symptoms and a diagnosis of depression” in adults.
Another American study found that youths (aged seven to 18-years-old) who felt they needed to value happiness highly were found to be “more depressed” as they weren’t able to reach their expected level of happiness.
So how do you respond to toxic positivity? Researchers have found that the act of “prioritising positivity” in everyday habits, as opposed to seeking overall happiness, can encourage a higher level of wellbeing, positive emotions and a decreased risk of depression.
This means if you seek out activities that you enjoy, you may form building blocks that will innately bring happiness and help regulate your emotions.
Coping with strong emotions
Learning how to deal with strong emotions can be challenging. Victoria recommends the following four steps if you’re feeling emotional and unsure of how to cope.
1. Acknowledge the emotion
Recognising you’re feeling a particular way is important. You don’t have to do this verbally, as long as you acknowledge it internally.
“We often might think we feel anger, but sometimes it’s more complex,” she explains. “We might feel sad, for example, but we’re reverting to anger to deal with the feeling.”
She suggests finding and understanding the core emotion behind how you’re feeling. Ask yourself, “Why am I acting this way? Why am I feeling this emotional reaction?”
Even the act of accepting, identifying and describing the feeling can have a positive effect on your health.
2. Confront the cause
If you’re able to, confront the person or situation that’s triggering the emotion with the goal of resolving the problem. If this isn’t possible, Victoria advises becoming an ‘observer’ to the situation and empowering yourself in the process.
“‘Observing’ is basically taking yourself out of the equation and trying not to take things personally; looking at your situation as if you’re not a part of it. Try to calmly understand what the other person’s perspective is and what might make them behave in a certain way.”
She explains that observing is an opportunity to learn about the person, rather than taking their actions personally and getting angry or frustrated.
If confronting the situation isn’t possible, talking to another person about how you’re feeling can make the emotion less intense and can have a therapeutic effect on the brain.
3. Owning your response
In order to understand what you’re feeling, reflect on the way you reacted and dealt with the situation.
“Think about what has got you to this point,” says Victoria, “and how you can prevent that in future. If it’s unavoidable, such as grief, think about your behaviour and how you could have perhaps handled the emotions better.”
4. Make time for self-care
Any self-care activities you find effective, or that calm and relax you, can be beneficial. Studies have consistently shown that exercise is beneficial to emotional stress, including a study published in the journal Cognition and Emotion that found people experiencing difficult emotions regulated those emotions better after moderate aerobic exercise, like jogging.
A 2019 study published in the Frontiers in Psychology journal found conducting exercise involving mindfulness practice could help “implicit emotion regulation ability”. So adding some mindful yoga or meditation to your life could help your body cope with future stressors.
Victoria also recommends practising forgiveness and gratitude towards the situations and people surrounding you.
Need help improving your mood and awareness?
Woebot * is an automated mental health chatbot – a robot designed to help you learn about yourself and manage your state of mind.
Designed by psychologists from Stanford University, Woebot delivers evidenced-based cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) principles in a relaxed conversational way and sends you videos and other useful tools depending on how you’re doing. This app is free to all HCF members.
If you feel like you have trouble expressing or controlling your emotions, it may be helpful to speak to your GP or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Do you need to talk about your emotions?
Eligible members + can also access a HealthyMinds Check-in with a PSYCH2U psychologist at no cost, for a limited time.
Words by Lucy Cousins
Updated August 2022
302 DO NOT PUBLISH DXO Positively healthy
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Science of Emotions: Understanding Anger
Can Anger Be a Good Thing?
“Whate’er’s begun in anger ends in shame.” Benjamin Franklin offers these words of caution in Poor Richard’s Almanack, advising the reader about the consequences of acting on such a strong emotion. But scientists have proposed several theories suggesting how anger is a useful communication signal that has helped humans survive throughout our evolutionary history. Imagine you’re in an argument—getting angry might convince the other person to compromise or back down. Or, consider that any society needs to abide by certain rules and norms for the benefit of its people. If you get mad when someone breaks those rules, that anger is a way to show others that you care about their wellbeing. So if anger can be a good thing, what’s actually going on in our bodies and how can we control it?
How it Works
When you’re provoked into feeling angry, your body generates a stress response, similar to when you feel fear. As you can explore in our Your Brain exhibit, your heartbeat gets faster, your muscles contract, your facial expression and body language change. Unlike fear, however, where your first reaction may be to flee, anger is associated with a desire for confrontation. Your attention becomes focused on the threat, instinctively preparing for physical conflict. Often, your prefrontal cortex—the part of your brain responsible for judgment and self-control—is then able to put the situation in context and pull you back from the edge. But sometimes, the brain’s emotional center wins, compromising your ability to process information and make decisions, and you lash out physically or verbally.
Not everyone reacts with the same level of anger to the same situation. Scientists refer to this likelihood of becoming angry as “trait anger.” (Just think about how some people tend to show more road rage than others.) A recent study by scientists from Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea and Duke University looked at whole brain imaging data from more than a thousand people to investigate the characteristics of this variation. Intriguingly, they observed differences in the patterns of connections between brain areas involved with movement, action, and action-planning functions. The team hypothesizes that the denser connections across these areas among people who have higher levels of trait anger could potentially explain why they tend to act out on that frustration.
What Can We Do About it?
Uncontrolled anger can be bad for your physical and mental health, negatively affecting heart health, stress-related conditions, risky behaviors, and relationships with family and friends. It’s important to recognize the signs of anger; the sooner you acknowledge your feelings, the more time you have to decide how to react. The American Psychological Association describes three approaches to anger management. First, you can express your feelings productively to communicate what you need and how to solve the problem. Second, you can try to suppress your anger and shift your focus to something positive, although holding your anger in and dwelling on it can risk more long-term problems. Finally, you can buy yourself time to calm down by walking away and slowing your breath and heart rate. There are many practical strategies for controlling your emotions; try different techniques to find what might work for you. We all experience anger—but with the right approach, it doesn’t have to end in shame.
Anger & Your Heart: 6 Ways to Change Your Lifestyle
It can be an angry world: traffic jams, long lines at the grocery store, slow-loading screens and interruptions.
But those quick flashes of anger are nothing compared to the emotions that can coil up inside you, waiting to burst out: financial losses, feeling upset about your place in life or dealing with a threat.
No matter what kind of anger you have, your body is always giving off signals. Your muscles tense, you sweat, and you might even feel your heart race or pound.
On some level, we all know that anger is bad for our hearts.
“Any sort of real emotional outpouring does have an impact on our body,” says Dr. Richard Chazal, a cardiologist with Lee Health. «If I get excited or upset or frightened, for that matter, my body releases chemicals into the blood stream, particularly epinephrine, that can cause an increase in heart rate, increase in blood pressure and it can constrict some of the blood vessels.”
That means a person with a high stress lifestyle – especially someone who smokes or has a family history of heart disease – could be at a higher risk of a heart attack or heart disease.
Here are some tips about what you can do to soothe your anger:
- Take a time out: Simply remove yourself from an angry situation when you can. Having an argument with a co-worker or spouse? Decide to go into another room or take a walk.
- Distract yourself: Sitting in traffic for a while at rush hour will annoy even the most enlightened soul. But, hey, you’ve got your music. Dial up your favorite song and sing along or name all the colors you see.
- Just breathe: If you are feeling overwhelmed at work, simply look up from your computer screen and count to 10. Take a few deep breaths. Many people are always surprised how good deep breathing can make them feel—they just forget or are out of practice. Put a sticky note on your computer to remind you every hour or so.
- The American Psychological Association also recommends resolving your issues with logic and language: Appreciate things about the person or situation that makes you angry. Stop saying words like “never” (as in, “this never works”) and instead try to think about the bigger picture. The world is not out to get you. Change demands on people’s time to simple requests. You’ll find that simply changing the way you sound will go deep.
- Physical activity: When you finally get home after being in that traffic jam or you find yourself in another argument, it might be time to go for that jog or take up kickboxing. Take off on your bike and explore the back roads. Science has proven time and again that physical activity can lower stress and anger levels. Not ready for a triathlon? Simply take a stroll under the stars to calm down.
- Thinking affects feeling, the APA says, when coping with all your anger triggers: Remember to avoid lashing out. You can still be assertive instead of being aggressive. But learning the difference and how to act it out takes time and practice. Don’t rule out the possibility of therapy and consciously trying to change the way you think.
While we can’t always control what’s causing the stress we can control how we respond to it. Dr. Chazal recommends finding time to be active to reduce your level of stress.
“People who exercise release endorphins, which are hormones in the brain that actually have a soothing effect,” he says. The soothing effect from exercising can lower blood pressure and improve the vascular system, lowering the risk for a heart attack.
Talk to a Lee Health cardiologist today about heart issues or concerns.
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Mental health experts will help you with depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and teach you how to take control and feel valuable.