Harmful Effects of Holding in Anger
Imagine a really angry person. Do you picture someone who is aggressive and hostile, quick to blow up or out of control? Many people do. So, you may be surprised to learn that most angry people hold in their anger. In fact, a study by the University of Massachusetts found as few as 10 percent of angry people “act out” in a clearly aggressive manner.
People who hold in angry feelings show it in other ways, such as being overly critical and cynical or feeling depressed and victimized. Being angry uses a lot of emotional and physical energy. Consequently, internalizing anger can have harmful effects, debilitating both physical and mental health and compromising personal and professional relationships.
Anger is one of many ways the body responds to stress. Stress can be caused by most anything, such as job pressure, a fear of failing, chronic pain, memories of a traumatic event or relationship problems. Even minor irritants, such as traffic or waiting in line, can cause stress. When a person gets angry, the body reacts by increasing heart rate and blood pressure and releasing elevated amounts of certain hormones. Although the body is able to adjust to “normal” levels of stress, significant and accumulated stress can contribute to disease and eventual death.
In fact, medical researchers have linked the stress response of anger to:
- elevated blood pressure
- increased heart rate
- tense muscles
- heart attack
- hiatal hernia
- low back pain
- shortened life expectancy
Unexpressed—and expressed—anger impacts a person’s mental health as well. Studies have linked anger to loneliness, chronic anxiety, depression, eating disorders, sleep disorders, obsessive-compulsive behavior and phobias. Anger’s harmful effects spill over into a person’s personal and professional lives, undermining a person’s capacity for emotional fulfillment and personal and professional achievement. In other words, anger can hold you back and keep you down.
Anger inhibits the development and maintenance of intimate relationships, often resulting in marital and occupational instability. Angry people frequently blow misunderstandings and minor grievances out of proportion and are more inclined to end relationships with people, even close friends, than work to resolve problems. Other people find their demeanor and mood unpleasant to be around. Consequently, angry people often alienate themselves from others—even their own families. Angry people have trouble being effective parents and spouses.
Is getting physical the answer?
Yes and no. Physical expression of anger is appropriate sometimes. But angry outbursts typically offer only temporary relief, and can sometimes escalate the anger and aggression. If your anger is eating you up inside, there are books and courses that teach anger management strategies. Your family health care provider is another good resource.
The Anger Trap: Free Yourself From the Frustrations That Sabotage Your Life by Les Carter and Frank Minirth. Jossey-Bass, 2004.
Dealing With People You Can't Stand: How to Bring out the Best in People at Their Worst, 2d. ed., by Rick Brinkman and Rick Kirschner. McGraw-Hill, 2002.
When Anger Hurts: Quieting the Storm Within, 2d ed., by Matthew McKay. New Harbinger Publications, 2003.
By Christine P. Martin