Can Anger Affect Your Heart Health? Scientists Find the Strong Emotion Impacts How Blood Vessels Function

The results could even help explain why stress from anger may trigger a heart attack

A person getting their blood pressure checked
Previous research suggested that anger can increase people's risk of heart attacks. In the new study, researchers found that part of the reason why could be that anger briefly reduces blood vessels' ability to widen. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Past scientific research has suggested that episodes of anger are linked to increased risk of heart attacks. In a new study, scientists tried to tease out why this might be the case.

Participants who were asked to recall times they experienced anger had reduced dilation, or widening, of their blood vessels for a short period of time compared to a control group, the researchers report May 1 in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Impaired blood vessel dilation is a precursor for the buildup of deposits inside vessel walls, which can lead to heart attacks, according to a statement from the National Institutes of Health's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, which funded the research. The findings start to explain how anger might contribute to poor heart health.

“It’s not widely known or widely accepted that anger does precipitate heart attacks,” Holly Middlekauff, a cardiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who did not contribute to the findings, tells NBC News’ Barbara Mantel. “This study offers a biological plausibility to that theory, that anger is bad for you, that it raises your blood pressure, that we’re seeing impaired vascular health.”

“We’ve known that stress from anger can trigger a heart attack, but we didn’t understand why until this study, which elucidates the underlying mechanism,” Brian Choi, a cardiologist at George Washington University who was not involved with the research, says to the Washington Post’s Sabrina Malhi.

For the study, the researchers recruited 280 seemingly healthy adults who self-reported that they did not have cardiovascular disease or risk factors including hypertension or diabetes.

Participants were randomly split into four groups: for eight minutes, participants talked about an experience that had evoked anger, talked about an experience that evoked anxiety, read sad statements or counted numbers for an emotionally neutral control.

The researchers measured changes in the participants’ blood flow before the experiment and several times in the 100 minutes following the task. They found that for up to 40 minutes after the experiment, people in the anger group had a reduced ability for the blood vessels to dilate compared to the control group.

Blood vessel dilation was not significantly affected for people in the sadness group or the anxiety group.

“It’s fascinating that anxiety and sadness did not have the same effect as anger, suggesting that the ways in which negative emotions contribute to heart disease differ,” Daichi Shimbo, lead author of the study and a cardiologist at Columbia University, says to the Washington Post.

Recurring periods of anger could have an effect on cardiovascular health in the long term, the paper’s authors write. The findings suggest that strong emotions could contribute to cardiac events in people with poor health, Shimbo tells New Scientist’s Clare Wilson.

The researchers don’t yet know how exactly anger is connected to blood vessel functioning. Future research into the mechanisms linking anger to reduced blood vessel dilation could lead to interventions for people at risk for cardiovascular disease, the study authors write.

The study purposefully didn’t include people with or at risk for cardiovascular disease, since they could have already had impaired blood vessel dilation from the outset of the study. But this means it’s not clear yet whether the results would apply to people with cardiovascular disease or risk factors.

In the future, researchers should study “populations with cardiovascular disease, with diabetes and at people who live in rural settings and ethnic and racial minorities,” Rebecca Campo, a psychologist at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, says to NBC News.

The study also only looked at a brief period of anger, so was not measuring the effects of chronic anger.

“I’d like to see a study of a group of chronically angry people and see what their vascular function is,” Middlekauff says to NBC News.

Strategies for managing anger include exercise, yoga, deep breathing and cognitive behavioral therapy, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s statement.

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