How is losing your temper bad for your health?

The Physical–and Cognitive–Toll of Anger

Another thing that makes anger–or perhaps I should say, unregulated,indiscriminate, or over-the-top anger–so dumb is that it uses up so much energy. Literally, it takes so much out of you. Anger is the one emotion that mobilizes every organ and muscle group in your body. After all, it’s typically a response to something that, subjectively, is experienced as an imminent threat. So instinctively your body makes haste to prepare you to attack the (perceived) enemy–though in contemporary society not so much with your fists as with your vocal cords.

By the same token, however, the longer your organism continues in this heightened state of arousal, the more you’ll end up feeling drained, exhausted, and perhaps even depressed. If you understand stress as basically the wear and tear on your system, it’s only common sense to see the magnified stress of anger as cutting into your mortal physical resources. And at this point there’s plenty of research documenting that chronically angry people simply don’t live as long, and that they’re more susceptible to a variety of diseases as a direct result of so regularly overtaxing their system.

Here’s what automatically happens when your anger gets the better of you (compliments of fellow blogger, ):

1. The sympathetic nervous system is activated–nerves are on edge.
2. The heart rate accelerates.
3. Blood pressure elevates; blood surges into all muscles.
4. Eyes dilate.
5. Digestion halts (food in the stomach is either thrown-up or blasted with heavy doses of acid to process it in a hurry . . . experienced as a burning in the stomach); the body prepares to fight without the burden of a full stomach.
6. Messages of physical pain are blocked, so we can fight despite injuries [which, it might be observed, is hardly prudent when the threat is far more imagined than real].
7. The throat is stimulated, the voice resonates, producing an urge to roar or scream.
8. A surge of energy is produced throughout the body.

As Stosny notes, this enormous expenditure of energy inevitably leads you to crash. Moreover, high levels of anger destroy T-cells and weaken the immune system. And by now an abundance of studies have connected poorly controlled anger to all kinds of aches and pains (particularly headaches), and colds and flu–not to mention the increased, and far more serious, risks of hypertension, stroke, severe gastrointestinal symptoms, coronary artery disease, and cancer (see, e.g., Williams and Williams, , 1998).  Specifically, chronically high levels of anger linked to relational stress increase by fivefold your chances of dying before age 50.

So it stands to reason that the more frequently you get mad, and the greater your level of hostility (a kind of congealed, up-tight, attitudinal anger), the more life will be “bled” out of you. And, as a result, the shorter your lifespan. Again, anyone aware of the medical facts must realize that the habitual “practice” of anger is just dumb. It’s that detrimental to your physical welfare.

As Mark Twain once said, “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.”

Moreover, by interfering with your ability to effectively process information, poorly controlled anger can’t help but hinder your work performance and how well you complete tasks. Getting mad significantly undercuts your reasoning powers and distracts you from the job at hand. When you’re upset, it’s harder to listen, as well as to learn new things or negotiate conflicts.

But much more than this is the harm that frequent anger can do to your social ties, especially to your closest, most valued relationships. And I’ve already elaborated on this interpersonal toll in Part 1. Remember, when your anger has gotten the best of you–that is, the most human, “evolved” parts of you–you regress into your more primordial “reptilian brain.” Your better judgment is no longer available because deep down you’re experiencing so much threat and vulnerability.

And so you can’t help but react on the basis of ancient (but now terribly exaggerated) survival programs. No longer able to think clearly–or consider the various ramifications of your behavior–your intellect-enfeebled impulsivity is likely to defeat you far more than anybody else could. Which is to say that your real enemy doesn’t so much come from without as from within. As Confucius counseled, “When anger rises, think of the consequences.”

Finally, returning to the idea of repeatedly losing your temper as crazy, I should add that problematic anger is present in a whole host of psychiatric disturbances. It’s commonly observed in various personality, conduct, and impulse control disorders; in paranoid schizophrenia; and in certain organic brain disorders. And what makes such anger pathological (or “mad”) is that it’s dysregulated. It occurs in the absence of the individual’s ability to exert appropriate internal controls.

So–as should be obvious by now–I see the terms angry, crazy, and dumb as so complementary as in some ways to be nearly synonymous. As I hope I’ve amply demonstrated, anger makes very little sense in terms of enabling you to get what you want out of life. It’s probably one of the most unenlightened emotions, since ultimately it’s far more likely to make you miserable or bitter than to help you achieve contentment and peace of mind. In the same vein, behaviors routinely deemed “crazy” show a flagrant illogic or irrationality. And acts perceivable as “dumb” reflect an almost willful simple-mindedness, denseness, or dim-wittedness. If mad is a popular term able to serve triple duty, it’s because it integrates the negatively complementary features of each of these three mental/emotional states.

I’ll conclude this two-part post by reaffirming my “pop psychology” equation: mad = angry + crazy + dumb. And I’ll also add a couple of quotations that underscore some of my main points:

  • If you kick a stone in anger, you will hurt your foot (Korean proverb); and lastly,
  • Anger is a momentary madness, so control your passion or it will control you.  (Horace)

To the extent that your own anger might be characterized along any of the unflattering lines described above, you might wish to examine the many articles on the Web composed to assist you in reducing it. Or you might explore some of the worthwhile books that in the past couple of decades have emerged on the crucial subject of anger control. For the less anger you harbor, the healthier and happier, you’ll be . . . as well as the more harmonious, the more satisfying, your relationships.


Note 1: If you found this post useful and believe others might as well, kindly send them the link.

Author’s Books

© Copyright 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., All rights Reserved.
Previous articleYou Have To Be Angry, Crazy And Dumb To Get Mad
Next articleWhat's Your Sexual Pleasure?
Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., holds doctorates in both English and Psychology. Formerly an English professor at Queens College (CUNY) and Cleveland State University, he now lives in Del Mar, California, where he has maintained a general private practice since 1986. With clinical specialties in anger, trauma resolution (EMDR), couples conflict, compulsive/addictive behaviors, and depression, he has also taught some 200 adult education workshops on these subjects. In addition, he has served as consultant to both corporations and publishers. The author of The Vision of Melville and Conrad, he has also written numerous articles in the fields of literature and psychology. He is probably best known for his professional guide book Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy, which describes a wide array of seemingly illogical therapeutic interventions. These powerful techniques can help therapists effectively resolve difficult individual and marital/family problems when more straightforward methods have proved unsuccessful. An active blogger for Psychology Today, as of 1/1/15 his more than 250 posts--on a broad variety of psychological topics--have received over 8 million views.