That doesn’t mean you need to panic about your health every time you get really upset. Anger is natural, and keeping it inside can be as bad for you as raging on the freeway. Learning to express your anger constructively and let it go is key to keeping your heart healthy.
How serious is the risk?
Several recent studies have put the link between mind and heart into sharp focus. Researchers at the University of North Carolina measured the anger levels of nearly 13,000 men and women and then tracked them for six years. As reported in The Lancet, the people who were most prone to anger were nearly three times as likely as the cool-headed subjects to have a heart attack in those six years.
Depression may take an even greater toll. A 13-year study of 1,500 people conducted at Johns Hopkins University found that an episode of depression increased the risk of a heart attack more than fourfold. Even if a person survives the initial attack, depression can be deadly. Researchers at the Montreal Heart Institute tracked 222 heart attack survivors and found that those suffering from depression were roughly six times as likely as others to die within six months of their attack. Still another study found that victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome, including members of the military, were more likely to develop coronary heart disease.
Even if you aren’t depressed and rarely blow your top, the everyday strains of life can harm the heart. A 14-year study of 3,575 workers in the United States found that people who felt little control over their jobs were 40 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack.
How can I protect myself?
Nobody can expect to be calm 24 hours a day. But if anger, depression, or other negative feelings consume your life, you need to take action. Here are some tips that will help ease your mind and protect your heart:
- When you feel rage building, take a few breaths from deep in your belly and slowly repeat reassuring words such as “relax.” You can also try picturing a calm, peaceful scene.
- Stay away from situations that make you angry and hostile. If you can’t stand getting caught in traffic, try changing your schedule to avoid rush hour.
- Find a release for your anger. Instead of yelling, try talking it out. If you have trouble communicating your feelings with friends or family but feel a lot of pent-up emotion, consider seeing a counselor to explore those feelings. You may also want to burn some of that excess adrenaline by lifting weights or taking a jog around the block, if your doctor okays it.
- Regular exercise such as walking, jogging, or riding a bike is one of the surest ways to ease stress and ward off depression. A good workout can also strengthen your heart and help clear your arteries. Your doctor can help you find an exercise program that’s right for you.
- If you still feel tense, add some slow, relaxing exercises such as yoga or T’ai Chi to your routine. Your local community center may offer low-cost classes in these disciplines.
- Try meditation. One study of African Americans with high blood pressure found that those who meditated for six to nine months had healthier arteries than those who didn’t, according to a report in the journal Stroke.
Whether they work out of the home or not, parents have their own set of stresses. Try not to be a perfectionist or to expect perfect children. Ask friends or relatives to give you a break from the kids so you can do something you enjoy and return with enough energy for your family.
If you feel powerless at your workplace — a major cause of job strain — try taking the initiative on a new project or asking the boss for flex time. You’ll feel much better with a little more control. If you’re in a union, talk to the shop steward about ways the union or management could improve working conditions.
Know the warning signs of depression, and don’t take them lightly. Some of the red flags include an overwhelming feeling of sadness or emptiness, a feeling that life has gone flat, loss of interest in formerly pleasurable activities, unusual eating or sleeping patterns, excessive crying, or thoughts of suicide and death. If you feel depressed, see your doctor or a mental health professional for help as soon as possible. Counseling and prescription antidepressants, separately or in combination, can boost your mood and, perhaps, protect your heart.
Be especially wary of depression if you’ve already had a heart attack. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in three survivors slips into major depression at some point during the year following a heart attack. If your mind is troubled, your heart may be slow to heal.