6 Ways Anger Torpedoes Your Immunity – and 7 Ways to Fix It

As pleasant and worthwhile as it is to focus on living with as much serenity as possible, sometimes life has other plans. No matter who we are, at some point, there are bound to be moments and circumstances that may frustrate, agitate, annoy and even enrage even the most chill among us. The reality is, getting angry – hopefully, not very often – is a part of being human … even if it’s not the best part.

Whether you show it to the outside world or not, whether it seems like an appropriate response to a difficult set of circumstances or not, in health terms, anger is usually a negative. What makes it especially so is its ability to endanger your health by severely undercutting your immunity, aka your ability to stay well.  And, as you age and immunity naturally wanes, that’s the last thing you want to do. What’s the connection between anger and immunity? A lot more than you may realize, so here is some food for thought on the topic, plus a few ways to diffuse anger when you feel it start to rise:

Anger in a nutshell.

I think we all recognize anger when we see it or feel it. We can fairly sum it up as an emotion characterized by feelings of frustration, annoyance, or hostility often triggered by perceived threats or injustices. Mind you, the occasional flare-up of anger is normal, and, in small doses, may even be considered a healthy emotion. But, when it’s chronic, intense or explosive (you know who you are), it can take a toll on your mental and physical well-being, not to mention the wellbeing of those around you. Studies have shown that chronic anger and hostility can weaken the immune system, making us more susceptible to infections and illnesses. Add advancing years to that, and the negative ripple effect only grows.

The immunity and anger connection.

From birth to our last breath, the immune system is on duty, defending us against pathogens, toxins and other harmful substances. Cells, tissues, organs and the colonies of bacteria that mostly live in your gut (the microbiome), they all work as a team to identify and then neutralize threats to your health. The not-so-great news here is that the protective powers of the immune system wane with passing years. The thymus glands shrinks, dramatically so in our senior years, and we produce fewer antibodies that attack specific microbial invaders. And our innate immune system, our first non-specific line of defense, grows over-active, prone to trapping us in chronic inflammation. For both reasons, the COVID pandemic was particularly dangerous for older folks.

Aging and anger’s extra punch.

Simply put, aging and anger is a truly toxic combo. Sure, being the mature person that you are, you may be punching your pillow over a misbehaving teenager or boss-from hell to more politely ‘manage’ your anger but the person really taking the hit is you. The older you get, the fewer antibodies you produce, the fewer you can afford to lose. And prolonged anger elevates stress hormones like cortisol which, over time, suppress immune function, making it easier for pathogens to get a toehold. Granted, a short burst of anger can be healthy, mostly by increasing the production of certain white blood cells, which play an important role in the body's defense against bacterial infections. Wounds and injuries may heal faster too. But, as we age, that inflammatory response is more likely to turn chronic, which is what we don’t want.

The subtle ways anger hijacks your immunity.

For starters, when anger sends our stress hormones into longer-term overdrive, the immune system’s production of cytokines can become dysregulated. As you may recall from the pandemic, cytokines are the signaling molecules that crank up the body’s innate immune response. Studies have found that those who frequently experience anger have higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines which contribute to chronic inflammation—the key driver of many of the long-term, life-shortening ills we’re all trying to avoid, like cardiovascular, metabolic and autoimmune conditions.

How else does chronic anger undermine us? It can weaken the body's ability to produce antibodies, those all-important proteins that help neutralize and eliminate pathogens. Research indicates that those who struggle with management of their anger may have reduced antibody responses to vaccines, rendering them less effective in mounting an immune defense against infections like colds, flus and COVID-19.

Chronic anger can also do a number on your natural killer cells.  The physiological stress response triggered by anger can suppress the activity of these exceptionally helpful white blood cells which play a crucial role in immune surveillance and defense against cancerous cells. Suppress natural killer cell activity long and often enough, and you’ll compromise the body's ability to identify and eliminate abnormal cells, potentially increasing the risk of cancer.

In other words, the impact of anger on immunity extends well beyond the cellular level to affect multiple aspects of your health and well-being. For example, chronic anger is often associated with a number of immunity-undermining behaviors, like inadequate sleep, poor diet, sedentary lifestyle—all of which can further chip away at the strength of your immune system. Mental health can take a big hit too, particularly on-going, unresolved anger that may contribute to the development of depression and anxiety, themselves linked to immune dysfunction.

Knock anger down a peg (or two).

No matter how many years you have in the rear view mirror, brushing up on your anger management skills can shore up your emotional well-being and help you maintain a robust and resilient immune system, essential for healthspan and longevity.

Practices like meditation, mindfulness and stress management techniques can help you regulate emotions more effectively and mitigate the harmful effects of chronic anger on immunity. These techniques offer practical ways to release the pressure valve slowly so that no one gets hurt, yourself included. The more healthy strategies you can add to your anger management tool box, the better for you now and for years to come. Where to start? Here are a few tips that can help you de-escalate, deflate and de-fang the anger beast when you feel it start to rise:

  1. Clue yourself in -- with awareness and acceptance of anger.  Recognize and acknowledge the feeling (and its escalation) without judgment. Understanding the triggers in your life and recognizing the underlying causes of anger can empower you to address them more effectively.
  2. Upgrade your relaxation game – as in, start to practice simple relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, frequent sauna sessions, or yoga on the daily to tame stress and promote an emotional equilibrium. The idea is that if you’re starting the day with a lowered stress level, rising anger levels will also start from a lower baseline, in effect, giving your emotional plane a lot more runway before take-off.
  3. Cultivate coping skills -- instead of impulsively ‘flying off the handle,’ explore constructive ways to express and channel your emotions. Redirect energy into activities that bring you joy or make you smile and help reconnect you with the good stuff of life. Put classic de-compressors on your anger-busting playlist to help you regain your emotional balance -- think, exercise, hobbies, listening to calming music or spending time with those who love you and make you laugh.  
  4. Deescalate by recusing yourself – true, some folks enjoy arguing, but most of us don’t. If you’re in the latter camp, the simplest way to stop or put anger on pause is to calmly but firmly recuse yourself physically from the anger-inducing situation. This gives you (and others) time to cool off, and put some physical and emotional distance between yourself and the trigger.
  5. Do a deep dive – reach out to friends, family, or a therapist to talk through, or even role-play, the kind of situations that set you off, and consider different ways to handle anger when it comes up in the future. Don’t be reluctant to reach out for support and guidance on how to manage anger and improve your overall emotional resilience, and ultimately your physical health and immunity.
  6. Take a ‘4-7-8 Breath’ – To help put the brakes on anger in the moment, simply connect with your breath. Activate your built-in calming system with the ‘4-7-8 breath’ technique. It’s an easy and effective way to soothe your nervous system and find your center again. To do it:

• Place the tip of your tongue behind your top front teeth at the gum line.

• Purse your lips as if you are going to blow out a candle and exhale completely through your mouth, making a whooshing or sighing sound.

• Then close your mouth and inhale through your nose for four counts, hold the breath for seven counts, and exhale back through the mouth for eight counts.

• Repeat this breathing cycle for ten rounds.

Let go like a pro.

I believe Archbishop Desmond Tutu is the human embodiment of forgiveness. Years ago, the Archbishop explained to me that forgiveness is not about disregarding the offense you received at the hand of another. Rather, it’s about liberating yourself from the steely grip of anger. And to that I would add, you’re also helping to save your health. A worthy pursuit if ever there was one!

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