, Gloucester, MA

March 8, 2013

On the end: Anger and its stress

On the Mend
Joe DiVincenzo

---- — If you’ve ever been wronged, offended or denied a chance to react with retaliation, you’ve felt it.

If you’ve suffered an injustice, an insult or been antagonized, you’ve felt it then, too.

It’s a capital vice, one of the seven deadly sins according to Christian ethics and is often thought of as the gateway emotion to the dismantling of personal relationships and mental health.

We’re talking, of course, about anger.

Easily categorized and referenced, anger is responsible for far more than just mental hardship. The measurable effects and changes that occur systemically throughout the body can have drastic consequences on your physical well-being.

As a physical therapist, I wouldn’t be able to comment on how to help you control it, but I can tell you what it does to your body, and perhaps that’s enough.

Anger is a response emotion. Part of the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system, anger is a conscious choice made by a person to eliminate a threatening stimulus. What you may not know is that anger has a strong tendency to become the predominant human emotion. To be phonetically and thematically redundant, the angrier you are, well, the angrier you are.

Anger can be a useful tool to mobilize psychological resources, but it had better be in short bursts because it causes a release of cortisol into the blood stream. Elevated levels of cortisol over prolonged periods have been strongly associated with multi-system organ dysfunction and serious conditions such as adrenal exhaustion.

As always, one thing leads to another. Angry people are far more likely to wake frequently during the night, complain of constant fatigue, crave sugar and use stimulating substances like caffeine and cigarettes to get through the day. All of these items are considered to be ‘life-shorteners,’ so perhaps counting to ten might be a good option after all.

Tension in the skeletal muscle shouldn’t be a surprise. Trigger points, otherwise known as knots, show up and stay put for long periods of time in angry people. The physiology of a trigger point and the subjective patient report both suggest that these knots are painful. And what do we know about pain? It makes you irritable. Seeing a pattern yet?

An increase in blood flowing to the hands prepares them to strike a target, hence why the hands of an angry individual tend to be warm or sweaty. You only have so much blood though, and is it worth knowing that you’re shunting blood and nutrients away from your vital organs. You’d better hope you’re healthy.

Anger causes stress and stress causes a release of numerous chemicals that when left unmitigated can result in a host of unwanted physical attributes. Obesity, baldness in men and thinning hair in women, gray hair, wrinkles and fatigue are all hallmark features of prolonged adrenaline and cortisol elevation.

Have you ever been so mad you turned red? It’s easy to tell when someone is angry, isn’t it? A beet-red faced man is probably a good person to stay away from.

But you might not know that repeatedly flushing your face with blood may burst blood vessels and cause spider (varicose) veins on your cheeks. It’s going to be tough to conceal your anger if you’ve gotten to the point of using concealer on your face.

Gloucester resident Joe DiVincenzo is a physical therapist and clinical specialist in manual therapy. He writes “On the Mend” weekly. Questions may be submitted by email to