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How anger and stress affect the body

24 June 2020
3 minute read

Stressed person sitting on bed

By Kirsty Coetzee

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.”

When dealing with prolonged and unmanaged anger and stress, you are likely to feel more than just the strain of emotions, but some very real physical symptoms too. These physical side effects of anger and stress can be draining, and often scary.

What happens in the brain when you get angry?Anger and stress stimulate a very real chemical reaction in the brain - the fear-reaction that is more commonly known as “fight or flight”. The trigger begins in the hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain that controls the endocrine system - IE: balancing many of the hormonal systems in the body.

When confronted by stress signals, the hypothalamus signals the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system, which results in the release of over 30 hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. The body’s glands are also activated, to prepare the smooth muscles for reaction to danger. Fight or flight is a dramatic event in the body, and many of the hormones being activated can cause damage over long periods of time.

Because of the stressful lifestyle that many of us lead in modern society, we subject our bodies to this dramatic event over and over, with the body’s natural reaction to stress hormones causing:

  • Increased heart rate
  • High blood pressure
  • Dilated pupils
  • Increased blood glucose levels
  • Muscle tension
  • Smooth muscle relaxation (lungs, for example, to increase oxygen intake)

Furthermore, non-essential systems, such as the immune system and digestive system, are deactivated temporarily so that the body can focus on survival. As you can imagine, repeating this stress-cycle regularly can have devastating effects on your health over time. Some of the symptoms of prolonged, or chronic, stress are:

  • Headache and tension
  • Depression and fatigue
  • Stomachache and digestive problems
  • Heartburn
  • Infertility
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar
  • Heart palpitations and chest pain
  • Heart attack, in serious cases
  • Weakened immune system

Confronting the immediate effects of anger in your lifeAnger is a healthy response to injustice and violated personal boundaries. However, because your body experiences anger as stress, learning to manage your anger is as important as learning how to manage stress. Here’s what you can do the next time that you feel yourself reacting in anger:

Physically calming techniques: take a series of long, deep breaths to help your body recover from fight-or-flight faster. Some people find that it helps to do a quick set of physical exercises or to briskly walk away from the situation, to trick the body into perceiving that they have fought or fled

Recognise and understand recurring anger: If you are experiencing repetitive episodes of anger to different situations, you may consider keeping a journal to help you to recognise your own triggers and understand why they exist. In extreme cases, there is nothing shameful about seeking help in the form of therapy or counselling.

Mentally calming techniques: Being mentally calm in the first place will already give you an advantage when confronted with a situation that provokes anger. This could be daily meditation and breathing exercises and regular physical exercise.

Work through unforgiveness: As stated by Mark Twain, the toxicity of anger affects the person holding onto the anger and bitterness far worse than anyone else. Seek out ways to embrace forgiveness, so that you can live your life to the fullest, without the poison of hatred in your heart - and in your body.

Address other stressors in your life. According to studies into the relationship between anger and stress, anger is more prevalent when people are placed under other forms of stress. If you’re under a lot of pressure, bear in mind that you may feel short-fused and irritable, and more prone to losing your temper with the people around you.

There are simple and effective ways to manage stress in your everyday life:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat a balanced diet, rich in amino acids
  • Try a vitamin B supplement
  • Make sure you get enough sleep
  • Try forms of meditation, yoga or forms of prayer
  • Take time out to partake in a hobby, socialise with friends, or get some sunshine
  • Talk to someone who you love or a trusted counsellor
  • Reduce consumption of sugar, caffeine and alcohol

There are so many causes of stress that we face on a daily basis - many of them are out of our control. Our reaction to them, and our preparedness for them, will determine how we emerge in the end.

Find healthy ways to prepare for and deal with your stress and anger, for your own health and mental well-being, and for the relationships that you have with those around you.

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