Don’t get mad, get even-tempered
If you’re prone to anger, you might want to tone down your temper. It would do your heart a world of good.
Chronic and intense anger can damage the heart; so can frequent bouts of depression, anxiety or despair, says researcher and stress management therapist Jerry Kiffer. These negative feelings create internal stress, possibly causing as much wear and tear on the cardiovascular system as external stressors and unhealthy lifestyle choices, he says. “All of these affect the heart.”
But you can do something about them. In addition to taking good care of your physical health, you can offset the harmful effects of negative emotions by cultivating the other end of the emotional spectrum – positive feelings such as awe and wonder, excitement and joy, Mr. Kiffer says.
“Begin by being aware of how emotions run the spectrum from positive to negative, and accept the fact that you’re going to have an angry or anxious response,” he says. In the case of anger, “Ask yourself: Is this worth fighting for? We all have these little hassles that tick us off. You can say, ‘I choose not to react. I let it go.’”
This is not about stuffing your anger. Suppressed emotions are just as damaging as the ones expressed outwardly, Mr. Kiffer says. “They need to be recognized. The key to the process is to make a choice: ‘I’m not going to spend 20 minutes of my time being angry at this.’ It’s all about choice and control.”
A master’s level therapist certified in biofeedback, Mr. Kiffer began working at Cleveland Clinic 34 years ago under the mentorship of Michael McKee, PhD. It was around that time that Cleveland Clinic began researching biofeedback therapy, a technique in which patients are trained to improve their health by developing voluntary control over the physiological processes affected by stress.
“Cleveland Clinic has supported stress management programs for more than 30 years,” Mr. Kiffer says. “It’s proof of how long we’ve been working with people on the effects of stress on the heart.” Dr. McKee and Mr. Kiffer continue to explore the effects of biofeedback and stress management on improving heart problems through ongoing research in the Earl and Doris Bakken Heart-Brain Institute.
Among his roles at Cleveland Clinic, Mr. Kiffer also serves as a coach for the Wellness Institute’s Executive Health programs, where he teaches participants how to manage stress.
For people who have a genetic predisposition to heart problems, stress-management techniques are crucial. “We know that stress makes any physical problem worse so it behooves us to make the changes that are under our control,” he says.
Unfortunately, people don’t believe they can control their emotional responses. Mr. Kiffer cites the results of the Web-based Values in Action survey in which self-regulation consistently ranks last when people assess their personal strengths. Curiosity, fairness and love, on the other hand, rank high.
All this matters because anger and other negative emotions take away peace of mind and vitality, Mr. Kiffer says. Simply put, you’re more likely to thrive when you spend time cultivating joy in your life. “I don’t take away anybody’s anger. I hold a mirror to it,” he says. “You have a choice and tools to work at managing your anger. Decide to do something about it.”
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