We all get angry from time to time, when we face unfairness or injustice - real or perceived. Sometimes we ‘get’ angry hoping (not always successfully) to elicit the response we desire, e.g., with our children, or, work ‘subordinates’. And, some of us become angry, excessively, or for a prolonged period, at even the slightest provocation.

Outbursts of anger, we all know, are never pretty; often produce the opposite of the result we really want; and worse still, damage relationships and careers. There are, it emerges, serious health consequences as well.

Harvard Medical Research Findings

Scientists confirm that anger can also take a heavy medical toll on us, in particular, heart disease and stroke! The BBC reported on 4th March, 2014, findings of Harvard researchers, in essence saying that the hostile heart is highly vulnerable in a medical sense. Their ‘longitudinal’ research was carried out over a few decades and covered a few thousands of men. The full report is at http://www.health.harvard.edu/fhg/updates/update0906a.shtml.

The research findings are unequivocal, especially, with regard to excessive, repeated or prolonged anger or hostility. The young, as much as the middle-aged, are vulnerable: and, the consequences are both long term and short term.

  • Among the ‘middle-aged’, the angriest, in the long run, are three times more likely to develop heart diseases than the placid ones. The researchers also looked for correlation in the short run: by scientifically measuring level of anger, they found that ‘intense anger’ doubled the risk of heart attack within matter of hours. The risk of a stroke also increases significantly.
  • The young are not immune to the risks, either. For over three decades, John Hopkins scientists medically tracked over 1000 men and found that anger even in young adulthood emerged as a predictor of premature heart disease. Compared with their peers, the angriest young men are six times more likely to suffer heart attacks by age 55 and three times more likely to develop some form of cardiovascular disease.

Why? What could be the reason?

Anger, like other forms of stress, triggers a surge in adrenaline, the stress hormone that boosts the blood pressure and pulse rate, in turn increasing heart’s workload and need for oxygen and heavier breathing. Adrenaline can also provoke abnormal heart rhythms and some types of blood clots in arteries. High levels of anger can even provoke spasm in a coronary artery. While more work will need to be done to establish the precise cause-effect linkages, there is no doubt about the strong connection between anger and increased risk of heart diseases.

Yogic Wisdom

Not surprisingly, our ancestors identified anger, or ‘krodha’ (along with ‘kama’ or desire) as our major internal enemy. In Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna pointedly asks Lord Krishna what impels a person to commit sin. Why do we end up doing the wrong things, ‘papam charati’? The reply is blunt: ‘kama’ and ‘krodha’. On ‘krodha’, Lord Krishna expands: “krodhÀd bhavati sammohah sammohÀt smrtivibhramah | smitibhramsÀd buddhinÀso buddhinÀsÀt pranasyati ||” (Chapter 2- Verse 63): “From anger arises delusion, from delusion confusion of memory, from confusion of memory loss of intellect and from loss of intellect one perishes.’

When anger mounts up, we lose control of our senses and get deluded. Delusion leads to confusion of memory, or loss of memory: we forget what we have learnt over the years, what is right or wrong, what is good or bad; we forget our obligations. This leads to ‘buddhi-nasa’, or loss of intellect and ability to understand and discriminate. The ultimate consequence is that we simply perish, in the sense of our ceasing to be ‘fit for purpose’ as a human being.

What is the most important remedial measure we can take? Lord Krishna’s answer is ‘self-control’. In various verses, He advises Arjuna that true happiness does not come from what appears at first like nectar but in truth venom; it comes instead from self-control, although in the beginning it is bitter and hard. There are techniques that help us in this, such as, pranayama, or control of breath, and meditation. Yoga sastras have extensive advice on how to do pranayama and meditate. Gita itself contains a whole chapter, Chapter VI, titled ‘Dyana Yoga’ or yoga of meditation. It contains several practical suggestions on how to meditate: where to sit, how to sit, how to focus the mind, etc., and also on other related matters such as what to eat, what not to eat, how much to eat, etc.,

Self-control and not getting angry is not easy or that simple. It is for this reason that we repeatedly remind ourselves of the dangers of krodha in our traditional practices, or, ‘nithya karmas’. At the beginning of Sandhyavandanam we seek forgiveness for sins committed because of krodha or anger – ‘manyu kridebyaha papepyo rakshantham’. In the Gayathri Japam, to be done thrice daily, we say much the same thing: ‘manyura kaarshi namo namah’. As part of Upakarma, once a year, we recite 1008 times, ‘kamakarsheet, manyurakarsheet’! And, in virtually, every nithya karma or puja, we do pranayama at the beginning and at several other times!

In sum, our sastras tell us that anger, as much as greed, is our chief internal enemy and the way to deal with it is self-control, achieved through sustained meditation and other yogic practices.

Modern Medical Advice

Interestingly, the advice given by modern medical professionals to manage anger is similar to what our sastras say. There are medications and other treatments that help reduce the likelihood of anger-induced heart-attack and there are circumstances where we would be advised to use them. But, as Harvard Medical Helpline points out, we can do a lot by ourselves, by way of ’self- control and meditation’. Their considered advice boils down to three things:

  • Minimise getting angry: The first thing is to identify the things that bother us most and make us get angry and do our best to change them. We should also learn to recognize the warning signs of building tension - such as a racing pulse, fast breathing, or a jumpy and restless feeling. If and hen we recognize these signals to be developing, we should take steps to relieve the tension before it builds to the boiling point. In other words, let us try and, as far as possible, avoid getting angry!
  • Prevent or at least moderate our outburst of anger: Second, when we do get angry, through various behavioral techniques we should learn to ‘manage’ how we show our anger - don’t permit ourselves quick or strong outbursts of anger, but, ‘wait for a few moments, take a deep breath and then only say what we want to say’; ‘talk slowly without interrupting others’;’ not raise our voice or use expletives, instead use the least hostile phrases or words’; and avoid non-verbal hostility, such as honking a horn, clenching the teeth or gramacing! In essence, if we cannot avoid getting angry, we should at least moderate how we show it – a sort of damage limitation!!
  • Use various techniques to remain calm: Third, and most importantly, we should learn to practise, regularly, meditation and deep breathing by going through the three stages of breathing exercise: breathing in through nose slowly and deeply; holding the breath for several seconds; and, exhaling slowly. Slow and steady wins the game, even in how we breathe!!!

If the last suggestion sounds like pranayama, it is because it indeed is!

P.S. The South Indian Society, London, is organizing a yoga workshop on 15th March, 2014. Aimed at the young and not so young and led by an eminent Yoga teacher, it will include exercises in pranayama and meditation. All are welcome to attend.