For years, Linda Smith has fought to contain feelings of anger she knows are completely irrational — but when she is really angry, watch out.
"I am suddenly enraged," Smith said. "It's like a pressure cooker has been building and building, and there has been a lid on it, and all of a sudden a plug blows."
Smith has tried everything she can think of to contain her emotions, from clenching her teeth to clamping her jaw shut so that she does not respond to something that upsets her.
Her story sounds familiar to Dr. Redford Williams, director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke University School of Medicine. In his three decades of pioneering research into anger, he has proven that prolonged periods of anger raises our blood pressure, our adrenaline and our cortisol levels, causing damage to the immune system. Essentially, anger can kill us. Now Williams' latest research reveals something even scarier: Anger might be inherited.
Gene for Rage?
"There is not one illness that we know of that is not made worse or brought on more quickly by chronic anger," Williams told Good Morning America.
He has found a tiny molecular variation of a gene that we all carry that will predict those more prone to anger. Those who have the genetic variation have blood pressure that will soar to dangerous levels, and are at greater health risk, Williams said.
When Williams hooked Smith up to a blood pressure cuff and asked her to recall a situation that made her angry, the results were immediate.
"I was about as angry as I'd ever been," Smith said, recalling one incident. Her blood pressure jumped from 109 over 60 to 135 over 74. Her heart rate increased from 80 to 91.
"It does make me aware that I'm creating health risks," Smith said.
The research is early, and in the meantime, Williams is even more intent on helping people defuse their rage at anger management seminars. It is still too early to think of screening everyone for an anger gene, but Williams said there may be a day when that gene for rage will tell us whose anger could literally kill them.
"We're getting to the point where we can identify, on the basis of genetic characteristics, people who are at high risk," Williams said.