Two particularly masculine ways of expressing anger during fights with a significant other—letting it all out or shutting down emotionally—may take a toll on your health, but in very different ways. A team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and Northwestern University found that men who explode with rage are more likely than not-so-explosive men to develop cardiovascular problems. Meanwhile, men who bottle up their emotions are more likely to develop musculoskeletal problems such as muscle stiffness and back pain.
Robert Levenson, a psychologist at UC Berkeley, led the study. He and his team have been following a group of 156 heterosexual couples since 1989. Every five years, the researchers record the couples as they discuss their lives, focusing on sources of happiness and disagreement. The couples also fill out a detailed questionnaire about their health.
Experts in human behavior then watch the videos, carefully coding how the subjects express frustration and keeping specific track of their body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Some of the subjects display their anger more openly, knitting their brows, pressing lips together, tightening their jaw, and significantly raising or lowering their voice. Others do what the researchers call “stonewalling,” subtly stiffening their facial or neck muscles, giving their spouse the silent treatment, and avoiding or breaking eye contact.
Correlating the videos and health data, one thing became clear very early on: “We looked at marital-conflict conversations that lasted just 15 minutes and could predict the development of health problems over 20 years for husbands based on the emotional behaviors that they showed during these 15 minutes,” said psychologist Claudia Haase, who led the researchers from Northwestern.
Specifically, more volatile spouses had a higher risk of developing high blood pressure, chest pain, and other cardiovascular problems. And those who stonewalled were more likely as they got older to suffer from stiff muscles, back pain, and neck or joint stiffness.
Trying to identify the causes of specific physical ailments is notoriously difficult, so the researchers were very careful to exclude other factors that might affect health, including alcohol use, age, caffeine consumption, level of education, exercise level, and smoking.
The correlation between argument style and health is stronger in men, but according to Levenson, the overall results hold true for women as well. “Our findings suggest particular emotions expressed in a relationship predict vulnerability to particular health problems, and those emotions are anger and stonewalling,” he said in a UC Berkeley press release.
So what does this mean to you?
If you’re a hothead, you may want to think about meditation, therapy, or some other approach to managing your anger. Continuing to do what you’re doing might kill you.
If you’re a stonewaller, consider doing the opposite: Practice letting some of those bottled-up emotions out (but not so much that you cross into hothead territory). It’ll do you a world of good.
The study was published in the journal Emotion.