Medical researchers are now confirming what many of us have long suspected -- that our emotions and feelings have a HUGE effect on our physical health. While the idea of emotional intelligence is still fairly new, many studies are indicating that the so-called "negative" emotions such as pessimism, anger and depression all have adverse effects on our body's hormones and immune system. On the bright side, it seems clearer all the time that those of us who learn to manage our emotions without suppressing or stifling them can reap enormous benefits in our health and our relationships.
Dr. Chandrakant Shah, professor of public health sciences at the University of Toronto, has been reviewing statistical data from Canada's National Population Health Survey and 42 other studies with the Population Attributable Risk (PAR) formula. He feels certain that spirituality provides those who practice it health benefits of reduced stress, improved social connectedness, and healthier lifestyles -- all of which are well-known factors in lowering mortality. Dr. Shah defines spirituality as the beliefs and values one holds concerning one's place in the universe and which reflect one's connections with a higher power and social and physical environments. Dr. Shah recommends a balanced approach to material achievement, respect for the environment, volunteer work and caring for family and friends as individual measures to help with spirituality. On a community level, he recommends social tolerance, creating physical space for people to pursue their spiritual beliefs and fostering developments that promote a "healthy city."
But what about people who have a hard time feeling tolerant in the midst of the stress and strain of daily life? Life can be very stressful for most of us, and while a spiritual lifestyle is a great idea in theory, we have every day crises to contend with. What difference does it make how we face the stresses in our lives?
In a recent study, people whose answers ranked highest on a questionnaire assessing feelings of anger were found to be three times more likely to have a heart attack or suffer sudden cardiac death than those who were least anger-prone. A group led by Janice E. Williams, a research fellow at the university, reported their findings in the May 2 issue of "Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association". Williams and her colleagues analyzed data on nearly 13,000 participants, measuring their anger by examining their answers to the 10 questions in the Spielberger Trait Anger Scale. This questionnaire asks questions such as whether an individual is hot-headed, whether he or she wants to hit someone when angered, whether there are feelings of great annoyance when no recognition is given for good work. Of the people studied, 8 percent ranked highest on the scale. In the six-year follow-up period, these angriest people were 2.69 times more likely to have a heart attack or suffer sudden death than those lowest on the scale, while individuals with moderate feelings of anger were 35 percent more likely to experience a coronary event.
Yet another research article published in the April 28th issue of "Life Sciences" journal points out that holding in anger is not a good idea, since men in this Ohio State University study who consistently held in their angry feelings also showed higher levels of homocysteine... a blood chemical strongly associated with heart disease. Instead of holding in anger, researchers suggest that finding other ways to defuse anger may be much healthier. Homocysteine is a dietary byproduct of animal protein that is typically broken down in the bloodstream by folic acid and B vitamins. Elevated levels of homocysteine are suspected to damage the cells lining the walls of arteries, which in turn contributes to the development of plaque that can clog arteries.
These studies indicate the importance of managing our emotions, yet emotional management is something most of us don't learn in school. Considering the health ramifications, it's something we can no longer afford to ignore, and it's time to find out how and where we can learn the tools needed for emotional management.
Treatment of anger is possible when a person is willing to work on their own emotions, and sometimes self-control can be enough (especially if the person solicits and receives honest feedback from friends, family, and peers). Anger management begins with self-awareness, which can be hard for some people long-accustomed to reacting angrily to some situations in a reflexive manner -- they can have a hard time even noticing what it is that triggers their anger. Therapists are now beginning to realize the importance of finding better intervention strategies for anger management, in much the same way that they focused on depression and anxiety. Taking classes or using fun and interactive bio-feedback software from HeartMath can provide you with much-needed tools for learning to notice when something triggers your anger, and for learning how to change the cycle of runaway hostility without suppressing these volatile emotions.
Deborah Rozman, Executive Vice President of HeartMath, says "Anger is like an emotional virus. One or two angry people can take pent-up anger or stress and infect a whole room." Rozman goes on to explain that when people learn how to bring their heartbeats into a state of coherence (where variations between heartbeats are smoothed out) by practicing feeling appreciation, they are literally creating new neural pathways. The heart is a neurological organ, with it's own 'brain', as well as the source of our pulse, many important hormones, and a large electrical field (which has been measured extending ten feet or more beyond the body). When we apply the insight that we can learn to get out of feeling of whatever stressful emotion for a moment, going to neutral without 'stuffing' the emotion, we can feel some appreciation and compassion and get to a higher perspective. Rozman continues, "Heart intelligence gives us the ability to have the 'Aha!' When you put your heart into something, you get more coherence."
If this all sounds too difficult to you, you might be encouraged to learn that although it requires as much emotional energy to make changes in our heart's neural system and memory cells, the amplitude of coherent waves is so much more powerful and effective that you can make big changes in the way you respond to stress fairly quickly. It's never too late for a change of heart!
The Heart Information Network and the American Heart Association have more information on the relationship between anger, stress and heart disease. The American Psychological Association has tips on managing anger.
Dr. Chandrakant Shah, department of public health sciences, ph: (416) 978-6459, firstname.lastname@example.org
1 (800) 450-9111