How Pent Up Anger Can Actually Shorten Your Life

Discover healthy ways to vent your frustration.

How Pent Up Anger Can Actually Shorten Your Life

Anger is not a pleasant emotion. It can eat away at you over time, or it can explode all at once, blinding you to the feelings of others—it can make you feel like you don’t have control over your own life.

Yet, it’s an emotion that many people carry for long periods, even years at a time.

If you’re holding onto resentment, you may be familiar with the stress and exhaustion that it can bring. Cordett McCall, LMHC, QS, CAP, a Clinical Supervisor for Tampa Community Hospital and individual therapist in Florida, weighs in on the mental and physical effects of anger, and offers strategies for addressing it.   

Resentment can pollute your inner life
People tend to carry resentment because it's not always socially acceptable to express anger. However, keeping it bottled up can make you irritable, shorten your patience and decrease your attention span. Ruminating on events, replaying scenarios internally can overwhelm your thoughts, making it difficult to concentrate. An inability to express frustrations equates to a loss of control.

That feeling of powerlessness can raise your stress level. “It can manifest as a pessimistic attitude towards everything. Your self-esteem may also suffer if you don't know how to communicate your unhappiness; you can start feeling inadequate,” says McCall.

“But eventually, it's going to come out,” he continues. “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.”

Emotional outbursts can jeopardize your relationships, career or life if you experience road rage or violent confrontations. In fact, some people report “blacking out” from rage, after which they can’t recall what they said or did.

“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,” says McCall. 

Anger can wreak havoc on your health
Chronic low self-esteem can lead to or worsen mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

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 conditions.

Anger also causes stress hormones like adrenaline to flood your system. Those hormones can increase your blood pressure, heart rate and even your cholesterol level.

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

Unresolved anger may also up your odds of developing:

  • Eating disorders like bulimia
  • Type II diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Sleep disorders
  • Various addictions like smoking and drinking to self-soothe

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

How to express frustration
Wait until you’ve had time to cool down before confronting 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,” advises McCall. 

Here are some other tips for strong communication:

  • 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,” says McCall.
  • Use “I” statements. For example, 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.

Finally, set boundaries, even at work. If you explain your needs in a clear, matter-of-fact way, others will respect you. But the key is to be assertive and rational, not aggressive or belligerent.

When to unleash your fury
Sometimes you just need to smash something. Release your inner Hulk with these safe, rage-busting activities:

  • Kickboxing: Exercise releases endorphins, or feel-good hormones. This form of exercise can boost your mood and increase your overall sense of wellbeing—plus you get to punch stuff.
  • Running or sprinting: Running can literally create distance between you and your source of frustration. It also offers solo time to clear your mind and reflect on solutions. Side note: Don’t push yourself beyond your normal, healthy exercise limits; it could put unnecessary strain on your heart. If you develop chest pain, palpitations or any other heart attack symptoms while exercising, stop immediately and call 9-11.
  • Journaling or creative writing: This method can be especially helpful if you aren’t sure how to verbalize your feelings just yet. It can let you vent toxic emotions, or help you organize your thoughts before acting on them.

Finally, 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,” says McCall.

For more help addressing anger, find a psychologist in your area using Sharecare’s find a doctor tool.

Read more from Cordett McCall, LMHC, QS, CAP.

Medically reviewed in February 2020.

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