Are You Angry? Well . . . Whether That's Good Depends On Situation

Posted: April 25, 1990

The righteous heat of anger is what kept college professor Robert Polhill alive through 39 months of captivity, much of that time spent chained in a windowless room. So says the ex-hostage, who was released Sunday in Beirut.

But anger also may contribute negatively to health, as a report in yesterday's New York Times points out. The report focused on the slow-burning and longstanding anger over racial prejudice felt by many African-Americans who, as a result, may suffer from dangerously high blood pressure.

The role of anger in influencing a person's health - long debated both by social and medical researchers - comes into prominence this week with the juxtaposition of these two headline-making stories.

"Anger is an enormous source of energy," said Dr. Leo Madow, a psychiatrist at the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital. "Because it is energy, you can't destroy it, but you can redirect it.

"If channeled constructively, anger can be useful. The danger is that if you keep it inside, it becomes destructive. You don't lose the anger, it just becomes destructive."

For Polhill, anger apparently was constructive.

"My belief is that part of the symptom of a mind beginning to stray and go bad to the point of danger, is the loss of anger," he said in a Syrian state television interview shortly after his release.

"I was angry at what was being done to me . . . I strived to continue to be angry, knowing at all times that if I began to lose that anger I would just sort of become a vegetable and I didn't want that to happen."

For some blacks, racism may be the spark that triggers high blood pressure, according to the Times report. Some scientists and clinical practitioners reached that conclusion after evaluating studies that, taken together, may help explain why high blood pressure is twice as common in blacks as in whites.

People of all races who suppress anger have higher blood pressure than others. In addition, some blacks appear to have a greater genetic or physiological suspectibility to hypertension than whites. Another reason why blacks may be at risk is that some blacks retain sodium in their kidneys when under stress, a reaction that raises blood pressure.

The Times described one recent study in which blacks' blood pressure rose higher when confronted with racial prejudice than with other anger-provoking situations.

"It makes sense to me that racism and black rage are emotional stressors that could worsen any physiological tendency toward hypertension," says Dr. Elijah Saunders, a University of Maryland cardiologist and recognized expert in the field of hypertension among African Americans.

The harmful and helpful implications of anger have long been known to those who work with the elderly. Edward Horton, who directs the Pennsylvania Hospital adult day health center at 8th and Spruce streets, said he has seen older men become angry when they can no longer drive a car. The men then use that anger as a motivator, channeling their energy to prove to their wives they can remain independent in other ways.

"Then there's the person who has had a stroke but refuses to cope with it," Horton said. "He focuses on improving an arm that won't improve. That can become destructive because he is denying the true situation. Underneath the anger is a feeling of mourning, really."

While people who seethe with anger - but don't explode - have higher blood

pressure than normal, this doesn't mean that the best way to deal with anger is to express it openly. Not from a mental-health standpoint, that is.

"Rarely is it best to use direct expression," said psychiatrist Madow. ''If this hostage (Polhill) had screamed at his captors, he wouldn't have survived.

"In the workplace, you may be angry at the boss, but you better not say it. You should take the anger and say, 'I'm gonna show that boss and get a master's degree,' or whatever. That's using anger constructively.

"People may be angry that they were brought up in poverty. They can use that anger to motivate them to succeed in business, to say to themselves, 'I'm never going to be poor again.' "

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