Pent-Up Anger Can Actually Shorten Your Life

There are healthier ways to manage these feelings.

woman screaming at computer

Updated on March 22, 2022.

Experiencing anger is not only unpleasant, it can even be harmful.

It can wear you down slowly over time, or it can burst out all at once. It can make you oblivious to the feelings of others or make you feel as if you don’t have control over your own life.

Of course, anger is often perfectly normal, an understandable reaction to a threat, harm, or to a situation in which things just don’t go your way. Over time, however, if anger isn’t addressed, it can curdle into resentment—a mix of contempt, shock, outrage, and rumination. Resentment is rarely healthy and can result in stress, exhaustion, and serious damage to relationships.

Sometimes when you feel this way, it can seem like you have no choice but to bottle it up. But it’s best to face these feelings and try to work through them. Cordett McCall, LMHC, QS, CAP, a clinical supervisor for Tampa Community Hospital and a therapist in Florida, weighs in on the mental and physical effects of anger and offers strategies for addressing it.   

Anger and resentment can pollute your inner life

It’s not always socially acceptable to express anger or resentment. But keeping such feelings bottled up can make you irritable, shorten your patience, and decrease your attention span. Ruminating on events can make you angrier, while mentally replaying scenarios that seemed unjust can overwhelm your thoughts, making it difficult to concentrate.

When you’re unable to express your anger, that feeling of powerlessness can raise your stress level. “It can manifest as a pessimistic attitude toward everything,” says McCall. “Your self-esteem may also suffer if you don't know how to communicate your unhappiness. You can start feeling inadequate.”

“Eventually, it's going to come out,” McCall says. “Over time, all those small frustrations will build up, and then it's like a dam breaking. Many times, it all comes out in one explosive episode.”

When you see yourself as powerless, your mind may use everyday experiences to reinforce that view, until you develop an entire belief system about your capabilities, McCall explains. That can lead to depression, anxiety, mood swings, insomnia, and a host of other mental health issues.

Emotional outbursts can jeopardize your relationships, career, or even life if you experience road rage or violent confrontations.

“When you’re extremely angry, you're not thinking with your pre-frontal cortex, which is the reasoning part of your brain. You're thinking with the amygdala, which controls emotion. Insight goes out the window and the facts can become distorted,” McCall says. 

Anger can wreak havoc on your health

Anger causes stress hormones like adrenaline to flood your system. Those hormones can increase your blood pressure and heart rate.

“You might feel hot and flustered. Some people describe it as feeling like their blood is about to boil. You physiologically feel these emotions,” McCall explains. “That increases your risk of conditions like chronic high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and chronic headaches.” 

Unresolved anger can go hand-in-hand with:

Angry outbursts can trigger heart attacks. For people who already have heart disease, suppressed anger may lead to worse long-term health outcomes.

How to manage angry feelings

Anger can be an important signal that something is wrong. It may mean that you need to focus on and solve a problem. But to do that effectively, you first need to get your feelings in hand. According to the American Psychological Association, there are three main ways to manage angry feelings: express them, suppress them, or calm down.

  • Expression: If speaking to the person who made you angry could be helpful, do so  assertively, but without aggression (learn more below). Alternatively, it may help to write in a journal, especially if you aren’t sure how to verbalize your feelings yet. It can help you organize your thoughts before acting on them. And don’t underestimate the power of a good cry. “Men, especially, are told from childhood not to cry. But it’s a healthy way to release negative emotions. You’ll feel better afterwards,” McCall says.
  • Suppression: Focus not on your anger but instead on something positive. This may be an important temporary step. But remember that ignoring your angry feelings could hurt your health over time.
  • Calm down: Take steps to reduce your body’s angry reaction. One way to approach this is with deliberate relaxation techniques, like slow breathing. You may also try exercise. It releases endorphins, or feel-good hormones, and it can boost your mood and increase your well-being. Jogging or walking away from a situation can literally create distance between you and your source of frustration. It also offers solo time to clear your mind and reflect on solutions. (Don’t overdo it, though. If you develop chest pain, palpitations, or other possible heart attack symptoms, stop working out and call 911 immediately).

How to communicate anger without making things worse

Wait until you’ve had time to cool down before speaking to the other person and enter the conversation with an open mind.

“Go into any conflict knowing that you could be wrong, or that you could be seeing the issue from the wrong perspective. You should be open to change and even willing to accept fault,” McCall advises. 

Here are some other tips for effective communication when you’re angry:

  • Be aware of the tone, pitch, and volume of your voice. “Often, it's not what you say, but how you say it. If you talk in a relaxed manner, the other person will be more responsive, and they'll tend to mirror how you present yourself,” McCall says.
  • Use “I” statements. For example, instead of “You never clean up around here,” say “I feel like I’ve been shouldering most of the housework lately.” This shows the other person how you’re feeling, as opposed to making them feel attacked.
  • Practice constructive listening. Listen without an agenda so you can truly understand why the argument started in the first place. Don’t just think about your next “line of attack” while the other person is speaking. Instead, let them finish their thought, process what they said and then respond.
  • Set boundaries. If you explain your needs in a clear, matter-of-fact way, others are more likely to respect you. The key is to be assertive and rational, not aggressive or belligerent.
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