As much as we’d rather not admit it, we all know what it feels like to hold a grudge. It’s a different breed of anger; a gnawing kind that quietly lingers under the surface while the outside appears otherwise contained.
A grudge is not that instant implosion you feel in your core when someone does something truly horrific that moment. It’s a deep, slow simmering that reemerges in your chest whenever you see the object of your wrath: a person who wronged you, perhaps hasn’t apologized, and maybe doesn’t even know you were ever upset.
Oh, and it’s totally unhealthy, too.
“All the data we know of, in regards to health and the effects of chronic anger, hostility can lead to heart disease and other issues, like depressed mood,” says Kristen Carpenter, Ph.D, a psychologist and the director of Women’s Behavioral Health at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center. “Even those with no history of heart issues are likely to develop them.”
Here’s how it all works: The more often you’re angry, or the longer you hold onto those feelings of unrest, the higher your stress level. When you’re under stress, your body gets a surge of cortisol to help you combat the effects of the stressor, suppressing nonessential functions like immune response and better enabling your body to utilize glucose. You’re essentially in a modern-day “fight or flight” mode.
Normally, though, this effect is short-lived. Except when it’s chronic. In that case, high levels of cortisol never shut off, throwing your system into a tailspin, leaving you prone to problems like heart disease, weight gain, anxiety and depression.
Carpenter says you can’t necessarily prove a cause-and-effect relationship between holding a grudge and medical issues, but the links between anger, stress and poor health are there. “The findings hold, regardless over other risk factors,” says Carpenter. “Holding a grudge is stressful. If you see the person everyday, it’s a constant trigger — activated frequently, on top of other daily hassles.”
The research indicates clear correlations. This study in the journal Circulation, for instance, showed men and women prone to anger were at increased risk of coronary heart disease and death. Another example? A 2007 article published in JAMA shows how chronic stress can lead to higher blood pressure, which, over time, can lead to issues like heart attack and stroke.
To let go of these grudges, Carpenter prescribes two potential solutions: a change in perspective or open communication.
“Communication really is an important piece,” she says. “People are always reticent to talk about difficult things. Sometimes with our closest others, it may be easier — but with a friend or a boss, it can be hard. It’s emotional, which doesn’t always feel appropriate.”
And bottom line?
Admitting we’ve been hurt puts us in a vulnerable position emotionally. A place not many of us willingly want to be. Carpenter says asking yourself how you can have a conversation about the issue at hand that’s productive is important. Don’t just rehash the issue and your feelings. Work on solutions to the issue.
The other way to deal with a grudge is to shift your perspective. “Maybe you just need to let it go, or work around it,” says Carpenter. “Ask yourself: is this an actual problem or a frustration?”
Especially in career contexts, with colleagues and bosses, making adjustments on your own can release a lot of anger surrounding life’s many unchangeable acquaintances. “A problem impairs you in some way. It is solvable, and you should be able to make active steps and take action,” says Carpenter. For instance, a member of your team at work is consistently not delivering her assignments, forcing everyone to work harder — and look bad in front of the boss.
A frustration might be that a team member consistently turns in work later than you’d like it. “In this case, how is ruminating helping?” Carpenter says. “Sometimes, you must accept that you cannot change others’ behavior and adapt your strategies accordingly.” For instance, you may find other work you can chip away at while you wait for her to send over her assignment.
If all else fails, reevaluate. “If it’s constantly causing you stress, you may have to ask if it’s the right relationship, friendship or job for you,” says Carpenter.
Just don’t hold a grudge, or hold onto anger. Your heart and health will thank you.