The Impact of Stress and Anger
Here is a recent Email from one of our readers:
"...My husband and I have four daughters and he has had two recent heart attacks. He has six stents and a handful of "false alarm" hospitalizations for chest pain, most of which follow arguing type situations. His current risk factors are cholesterol and stress management. We are pursuing stress management counseling to address this risk factor, but he struggles with anger and with four young daughters - there are plenty of mines in the field. There is a family history of depression and anger..."
Obviously, this husband is heavily loaded on the stress scale and that has taken it's toll on his cardio-vascular system. Featured on the "Greater Good Blog," Robert M. Sapolsky, MD, discusses stress and how it affects health. He is the author of the well known book, "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers." According to Dr. Sapolsky,
Homeostasis is an ideal or balanced way of being and feeling. Physically, everything is working perfectly and emotionally, there is a full sense of well being, with no anger, angst or stress. However, things happen to upset that balance and send us into a very different state of existence. What happens to upset that balance comes from danger from the outside world. As Sapolsky says, when a zebra is threatened by a lion, it goes into high alert, with raised blood pressure, a sharp increase in adrenaline flow and blood going to the legs and heart so that it can run rapidly. The zebra either survives or not but, either way, the situation ends. Not so with human beings.
With human beings, the stress response continues long after the danger has passed because we ruminate on the situation and that maintains a high level of blood pressure and adrenaline. In fact, we experience that high level of alert even in situations where there is no danger. If you find yourself getting angry and frustrated when stuck in a traffic jam, you understand how that happens. The problem is that maintaining that high level of alert is harmful to our health.
That is what is happening to the husband in the EMail and that is why his attending stress management classes is so important. He cannot change the fact that he has four daughters. No one can change the fact that life presents us with stress, both good and bad. Getting a big promotion at work is an example of good stress. However, it is stress and must be managed. As Sapolsky points out, it is vitally important to return to a state of equilibrium after the stressful situation has passed. For the zebra, things are back in balance. He escaped the lion and all is well. Human beings need to learn to do the same kind of thing so that we return to a state of equilibrium. Out husband cannot help getting upset and angry about his daughters but he can learn to ignore most situations they present and focus only when it's really important. Then, he needs to learn how to express his anger in ways that do not send him into a health crisis. Yelling, fuming, and hand wringing responses are not what the doctor ordered.
What are your experiences with stress and health?
Your comments are encouraged.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD