Bursts of Anger Could Increase Heart Attack Risk, Says New Study

Updated: May 01, 2024

Columbia University researchers may have discovered one way a red-hot flash of conflict can lead to permanent outcomes.

We’ve all experienced the visceral sensations of anger—like clenched fists, a clamped jaw, tight chest, even a racing heart. While anger can be a natural part of the human experience, research suggests the physiological effects of it are not always harmless. Today the American Heart Association has shared a study that discovered a remarkable way a temperamental reaction may affect heart risk and presumably even life expectancy.

Published May 1, 2024 in the Journal of the American Heart Association and conducted by a team of 11 doctors and medical researchers at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York, the study aimed to assess the real-time physiological changes associated with negative emotions like anger, sadness, and anxiety. Their goal was to understand how changes to heart rate and blood flow during these emotional states could affect the risks of heart attack and stroke.

For the study, researchers enrolled 280 healthy adults with an average age of 26. They were invited to a lab to be assessed for physiological changes during simulated negative emotion scenarios.

The participants underwent several baseline tests for blood pressure and heart health. They were then hooked up to continuous blood pressure monitoring, an intravenous catheter to assess blood vessel contraction and release (which is a cardiovascular metric signifying physiological stress response), and a pulse oximeter worn on the finger to measure blood oxygen levels.

At the beginning of the test, participants sat in a quiet room for 30 minutes without phones or stimuli. Each, the researchers say, was “randomly assigned to one of four emotional tasks for eight minutes: recalling a personal memory that made them angry; recalling a personal memory of anxiety; reading a series of depressing sentences that evoked sadness; or repeatedly counting to 100 to induce an emotionally neutral state.”

The participants’ medical metrics were assessed at three minutes into the task; then 40 minutes, 70 minutes, and 100 minutes afterward.

In a press release, the researchers share their main takeaway: “A brief episode of anger triggered by remembering past experiences may negatively impact the blood vessels’ ability to relax, which is essential for proper blood flow.” Interestingly, only anger produced changes that appeared to impair this blood vessel function. As the researchers put it: “When adults became angry after remembering past experiences, the function of cells lining the blood vessels was negatively impaired, which may restrict blood flow.”

Another observation was that these changes generally lasted for an extended period—up to 40 minutes in some participants. Feelings of anxiety and sadness did not show statistically significant effect on the blood vessels.

The researchers highlight that simply remembering a previous episode of anger had such pronounced effects. These changes imply that anger can have a powerful and potentially damaging impact on health, say the researchers: “Previous research has found that this may increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.”

Experts believe that these changes could even potentially lead to a heart attack or stroke, particularly in predisposed people. “Impaired vascular function is linked to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke,” said the study’s lead author Daichi Shimbo, MD, a professor of medicine at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center in the AHA’s official press release. “We saw that evoking an angered state led to blood vessel dysfunction, though we don’t yet understand what may cause these changes. Investigation into the underlying links between anger and blood vessel dysfunction may help identify effective intervention targets for people at increased risk of cardiovascular events.”

Glenn Levine, MD, FAHA, chief of the cardiology section at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, agreed, saying that the study “very eloquently shows how anger can negatively impact vascular endothelial health and function, and we know the vascular endothelium, the lining of blood vessels, is a key player in myocardial ischemia and atherosclerotic heart disease.”

While a few outbursts of anger are unlikely to lead to a heart attack in young healthy people, like those in the study, over time they could damage arteries. “Repeated episodes of a negative emotion may affect cardiovascular physiology over time, causing delayed recovery and eventually irreversible damage leading to increased CVD risk,” conclude the researchers. 

What’s clear is finding a healthy way to blow off steam and rein in anger is good for you. Whether you find the nearest rage room, try a cyclic breathing technique, or find relief in a decompressing talk with a friend or licensed therapist, finding creative ways to manage anger can be good for your heart—and your relationships.