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Can meditation prevent you from having a heart attack

Stress and anger can lead to poor behavior choices and even heart attack
Stress and anger can lead to poor behavior choices and even heart attack
Steve Galindo

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” –Buddha

Everyone has stress and anger in their lives. Even the Dalai Lama recently admitted that he gets angry sometimes. The most harmful force known to humanity is not high-tech weaponry but raw anger. When stress leads to chronic anger it can foster conditions that result not only in socially unfortunate outbreaks, but in heart attacks and other health problems. Anger is like lightning in a bottle, and the bottle is us. If we fan anger's embers inside us, the heat can consume our love, rationality, and emotional and physical health. If we direct the heat at others, it scorches everything in its path—friendships, work relationships, marriages, and families. At its worst, anger even maims and kills.

A new analysis has found that outbursts of anger can significantly increase the risk for irregular heart rhythms, angina, strokes and heart attacks.

Researchers combined data from nine studies of anger outbursts among patients who had had heart attacks, strokes and related problems. Most of the studies used a widely accepted anger assessment scale; one depended on a questionnaire administered to patients.

They found that in the two hours after an outburst of anger, the relative risk of angina and heart attack increased by nearly five times, while the risk of ischemic stroke and cardiac arrhythmia increased by more than three times. The findings appeared in The European Heart Journal.

The researchers stressed that the actual likelihood of having an anger-induced heart attack remains small. Still, for people with other risks for heart disease, any increase in risk is potentially dangerous.

For thousands of years, spiritual traditions such as yoga and Buddhism have offered detailed anti-anger prescriptions because anger undermines their main goal: attaining happiness and freedom. More recently, psychologists and medical researchers have studied anger to help prevent the damage it causes to both the perpetrator and the target. This accumulated knowledge makes clear that anger can indeed be tamed, because despite its destructive power, anger barely has a toehold in reality.

Anger comes in several forms, including outrage, frustration, jealousy, resentment, fury, and hatred. It also masquerades as judgment, criticism, and even boredom. Like all emotions, it is a complex, ever-shifting state involving thoughts, feelings, and bodily changes.

The physiological effects, which include a two-stage jolt from the class of neurotransmitters called catecholamines (epinephrine), do for anger what gasoline does for fire. The first surge lasts just minutes but energizes the body for immediate action—either fight or flight depending on how we interpret the situation. Our fight-or-flight response is usually biochemical overkill, a holdover from the days when the main threats to our daily equanimity were saber tooth tigers, not telemarketers calling at dinnertime. This may explain why we sometimes act all out of proportion to whatever provoked our anger. The second surge of catecholamines lasts longer, from hours to days. It puts us in an extended state of arousal and may account for why, when we're already having a bad day, we'll strike out at anything that moves—our kids, our spouse, the dog—for behavior that normally wouldn't bug us. It also underlies the seductive, sometimes enthralling power of anger—high on catecholamines, we feel strong, clear, and purposeful, dark though that purpose may be. Anger may be superficial and transitory, but that takes nothing away from its real and present dangers. Angry people hurt themselves and others, sometimes grievously and indiscriminately. More importantly holding anger in oblivious to its causes can exacerbate chronic health problems.

If we're stuck with our anger, what's the trick to mastering it? The ancient yogis didn't have access to the sophisticated knowledge of anger's biochemistry that researchers do today. But their mind-body-energy concepts are a fairly good analogue for the model that researchers apply to anger now; that partly explains why yoga is such an effective approach to dealing with it.

In yogic theory, asanas, pranayama, and meditation comprise a comprehensive toolkit for freeing up blockages at the mental, physical, or energetic level.

In fact, with a growing body of research backing yoga's effectiveness as an anger "de-fuser," physiologist Ralph LaForge regularly advises physicians to recommend yoga to their hostility-prone cardiac patients. LaForge is managing director of the Lipid Disorder Training Program at Duke University Medical Center's Endocrine Division in Durham, North Carolina, where groundbreaking research has taken place on "hot reactive" personality types—that is, people who react to anger more explosively than most. When these same people have cardiac risk factors such as high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, and central weight gain, to which they are statistically prone, an angry episode could trigger a catastrophic heart attack or other life-threatening coronary event. Yoga, particularly therapeutic forms says LaForge, has proven to be a valuable method of cooling hot-reactives down. Asanas actually allow you to move the energy associated with the anger, but once the immediate emotional heat cools down it is meditation that allows one to go past the anger.

There is a quiet expansion of new research indicating that meditation can physically change the brain in astonishing ways while reducing stress and anger in the process. Several studies suggest that these changes through meditation can make you happier, less stressed -- even nicer to other people. In addition, there is compelling evidence that meditation can improve many types of physical afflictions including heart disease.

In one study, a research team from Massachusetts General Hospital looked at the brain scans of 16 people before and after they participated in an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation. The study, published in the January issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, concluded that after completing the course, parts of the participants' brains associated with compassion and self-awareness grew, and parts associated with stress and emotions shrank.

In a landmark study from 2012 researchers found that meditation significantly lowered the rate of having a heart attack or other cardiovascular event. “The main finding [of our research] is that, added on top of usual medical care, intervention with a mind-body technique — transcendental meditation — can have a major effect on cardiovascular events,” says Robert Schneider, lead author on the study published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes and a professor at the Maharishi University of Management, an institution in Iowa that was founded by the creator of transcendental meditation.

He and his colleagues followed 201 African American men and women, who are at higher risk of heart disease than whites, but who also had addition reason to worry about heart attacks and strokes since they were also diagnosed with coronary heart disease. The participants were randomly assigned to participate in either a health education class about heart-friendly diet and exercise, or to attend a transcendental meditation program. Transcendental meditation involves shutting out the outside world and focusing thoughts inward, or resting while remaining alert. All of the participants continued to receive their normal medical care as well, including appropriate medication.

After roughly five years of follow-up, the researchers found a 48% reduction in the overall risk of heart attack, stroke, and death from any cause among members of the meditation group compared to those from the health education group. The meditating group enjoyed an average drop of 4.9 mm Hg in systolic blood pressure compared to the control group and also reported less stress and less anger. “It’s like discovering a whole new class of medications,” Schneider says of the power of meditation in improving the patients’ health.

The Buddha said, “We are what we think.” The yogic and Buddhist prescriptions are about working with the mind which is the problem in the first place. It is the thoughts about certain situations, people, events that lead to the emotion of anger. Meditation allows a person to realize they are not their thoughts. So the simple difference between those who meditate and those who do not, is that for a meditative mind the thought occurs but is witnessed, while for an ordinary mind, the thought occurs and is the boss. So in both minds, an upsetting thought can occur, but for those who meditate it is just another thought, which is seen as such and is allowed to blossom and die, while in the ordinary mind the thought instigates a storm which rages on and on. Of course learning to “let go” of unhelpful thoughts takes practice. Over time anyone can learn to use these simple techniques from the east to master their minds and their lives. The end result is a healthier and happier life. So avoid the anger and the heart attack and learn to meditate.

Meditation classes are available at North Shore Yoga.

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