Does Road Rage Make Physical Wounds Heal More Slowly?

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Research on the effects of anger expression on speed of wound healing shows that bottling it up and expressing anger in a controlled way do not affect the healing process adversely, but losing your temper sure does.

This fascinating study shows a relationship between style of expression of anger and the pace of wound healing. The hypothesis was that all kinds of anger expression, outward and inward, as well as lack of anger control, would be associated with delayed wound healing. This reflects the view that all kinds of anger are in some way harmful to the organism.

However, those who kept their anger inside and those who expressed it in a controlled fashion healed at the same rate. That is — faster than those who lost their temper.

After years of therapists, in the public perception, anyway, encouraging people to “let it all out”, here comes a little bit of evidence showing that at least one negative physical effect is caused by people doing just that! Of course therapists are more likely to endorse controlled expressions of anger than rampant road rage, but the study shows that the bodies of those who bottle it all up and those who express their anger in a controlled way, are indistinguishable as far as wound healing is concerned.

It looks as if anger is only a danger to our organism when it is out of control, when it starts to fuel its own fire. The study showed that “individuals exhibiting lower levels of anger control were more likely to be categorized as slow healers. The anger control variable predicted wound repair over and above differences in hostility, negative affectivity, social support, and health behaviors”.

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It is as if “bottling it all up” is not as toxic as assumed, and letting it all out and losing control (which may be done in a controlled setting, as in some kinds of therapy where people let rip with various implements in safe environments) is the very factor which causes stress to the organism.

Of course all the study is actually measuring is cortisol secretion, however tempting it might be to take it to measure the effects of rampant anger expression on general health and wellbeing.

Yet of course, there is no such thing as “just” cortisol secretion, in the interacting whole which is the human organism. It has become commonplace to consider human minds and bodies to be inextricably connected, with implications for our physical health, although maybe less explicit attention has been given to emotions. Changing cultural perceptions of health seem to focus more on stress, thinking patterns, and how they affect the body and its health.

While people seem to be increasingly interested in calming their minds and nervous systems, in “positive thinking” and “taking control” of their health, it sometimes seems to me as if specific terms referring to the nervous system are used as blanket terms for a wide range of emotions — “stress” may cover a great deal of sadness and anger, for example. Are emotions a driving force in our wellbeing, or is it what we do with them that counts?

The study would suggest that it is not what arises, but what we do with it, certainly where anger, which is one of the potentially most damaging emotions, is concerned. “The anger control variable predicted wound repair over and above differences in hostility, negative affectivity, social support, and health behaviors”. So it was not the hostility or negative feeling which caused the raised cortisol/delayed healing, nothing in the strength of the anger itself. It was not that a certain kind of isolated and unhealthy individual tended to fly off the handle. It was the sheer fact of being unable to control the anger.

So maybe, rather than encouraging clients to “let it out”, therapists need to be helping them find ways of staying bigger and standing firmer than their anger. Immediately finding out what it is about so it can be directed somewhere, before it breaks into a gallop and is off, taking the client with it. This would certainly also be a way of respecting others around the client.

On the other hand, maybe the only thing that is measurably affected by outbursts of road rage, or the other newly socially sanctioned ways of letting rip, really is the rate in which our surface wounds heal.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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