Stress and Anger: When Your Blood Boils

Bodily states of arousal and activation have a major role in anger. The saying that our “blood boils” when we become angry is not far from wrong, because increases in blood pressure are definitely associated with anger. In addition to elevations in blood pressure, the heart beats faster, muscles become tenser, breathing is more rapid, blood sugar increases and a variety of other biochemical changes take place in the body. There is no better metaphor for anger than hot fluid in a container. In patients with heart conditions, stress and anger can be a lethally stressful mix.

However, these changes inside the body during anger are only part of the story of how anger and physiological arousal are connected. The other part is that when your body is already aroused or activated because you are under pressure or stress, then you can become angry more quickly. This is especially true when pressures in one area of your life carry over into another area, as when work pressures spill over to home life.

One way to understand this is in terms of tension and its build-up. The arousal of anger is often a product of accumulated tension. When we feel strung-out, we are more easily provoked. Tension and agitation are the companions of anger. Tense muscles, headaches, and tightness in the chest reduce our tolerance for provocation. When our tension level is high, it takes something less serious to set us off. We suddenly treat a minor annoyance as though it were a catastrophe. Annoyances become aggravations. As the aggravation builds it also robs us of strength that is spent needlessly in making so much out of things that are of little consequence.

Work pressures, noise, and even things like traffic congestion in automobile driving will affect your level of arousal. Also, drinking coffee or other caffeine beverages increases physiological arousal. It is not uncommon to find someone who drinks many cups of coffee every day being puzzled about why he or she is often on edge or annoyed. Instead of having a heart rate in the range of 70-75 beats per minute, persons who are heavy consumers of these common stimulants and do not exercise regularly might have a heart rate of 90-100 beats per minute. To effectively deal with anger, you must learn to reduce your exposure to things that elevate your general level of arousal, whether that be work pressure, traffic congestion, chemical stimulants, or obnoxious people. Reducing such exposure, where possible, can then be combined with techniques like deep-­muscle relaxation training and other arousal reduction methods to get an overall effect. Relaxation induction is an important antidote for counteracting the effects of tension on anger.

Being tense or agitated colors our entire disposition towards life, work, and people. Being moody, cross, or sour reflects a crabby disposition that primes us for anger. This often comes from taking things, and ourselves, too seriously. When we lose our ability to take some distance from life’s nuisances, everything becomes more important than it need be. Someone who is characteristically tense and irritable is usually someone who has lost his or her sense of perspective. Often, when people “try harder” in doing something, such as an athletic skill, they become tense, and this usually detracts from their performance. Tension breeds errors and more tension.

A good indicator of taking things too seriously is losing your sense of humor. A sense of humor not only means being able to recognize a good joke and to laugh at it, but also that we are able to laugh at ourselves — not in mockery, but in appreciation of the less serious aspects of our behavior. Being able to roll with the punches, rather than stand rigidly in the face of adversity, comes from a keen ability to tell the less serious from the more serious. “Go with the flow” is a basic jujitsu principle.


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