Warning: Emotion could be hazardous

December 09, 1990|By Barbara Roessner | Barbara Roessner,Hartford Courant

I once observed the child of a psychotherapist throw a so-called temper tantrum.

It was a strange and chilling experience, not only amplifying my deeply held antipathy for shrinkdom but giving rise to great concern over the future of a young life.

"Mother," the little girl of 4 or 5 said evenly, "you're making me very angry."

There are in this world screamers and mutes, emotionally speaking, and this child definitely hailed from the latter realm. xTC There are those who spit it out and those who swallow hard, and this poor kid was trying to wash down a lump the size of a grapefruit. Not a healthy pursuit in my book.

Just thinking about it makes me gag. I have always reasoned that while it may be offensive to many people and burdensome to one's vocal cords, in the long run it is much better to get it all out. To scream and screech. To churn up the juices and send the heart into overdrive. To feel.

At the recent annual meeting of the American Heart Association, however, a spate of studies suggested otherwise. In fact, the experts now say, Little Miss Control will outlive us all.

One study, out of Duke University, confounds the conventional theory that ambitious, hard-driven Type A personalities are at increased risk of heart attacks. Comparing present cholesterol levels of 830 people administered personality tests in the mid-1960s, the study found anger and hostility are the real causes of ticker trouble.

Researchers at Yale, meanwhile, reported that people with strong emotions -- whatever those emotions might be -- are three times more likely to die of cardiac arrest than even-tempered people. That study examined the emotional makeup of 929 heart attack survivors, assessing attitude, posture, facial expressions, speech, hand gestures and other exterior signs of inner turbulence.

The reasoning behind both studies is that the heart can be damaged by adrenalin and other hormones the body pumps out when emotionally wrought, either through chronic exposure or because the hormones trigger a release of fat into the bloodstream and build up cholesterol (the bad kind).

In other words, emotionalism in general -- whether great anger or great joy -- can kill you.

In other words, I'm dead.

Some people get their kicks from racing fast cars, running for political office or reading absorbing novels. I just don't feel quite right unless I've had a good sob session, a verbal brawl or a laughing seizure the traces of which can be felt in my ribs for days.

I know a guy who watches "The 700 Club" just to experience the perverse rush of outrage that only the Christian Right can give him. I can relate; as far as I'm concerned, life lost a certain amount of luster when Morton Downey's avowed racism, sexism and anti-Semitism were forced off the air.

A close friend of mine recently got married. In a letter commemorating her nuptials, I praised her for her vast and frequently tapped reserves of adrenalin. I can't believe I actually identified the killer hormone. Even suggested her marriage would be the better for it.

To her and her new husband, I apologize. And my little note was not a death threat, I swear.

For some time now, I've taken comfort in the way my 2-year-old runs around the house alternately belly-laughing and shrieking, for no particular reason, "I'm mad!" I thought this was the mark of a well-balanced person, a person who, even at her young age, was in touch with her feelings and felt free to express them. Now I wonder. Is she going to have a coronary?

But before I attempt to bottle her up, I'd like to see a study on the effects of holding it in.

In the meantime, we must contend with the mounting evidence that not only meat, fat, sugar, caffeine (nah, strike that, it's decaf, remember?), cigarettes, alcohol and television (yeah, sitting in front of the tube builds cholesterol, too), but depth of feeling -- life itself -- can kill.

And we must ask ourselves: If swearing off joy and anger, happiness and rage, is the key to a healthy heart, is it worth eschewing life to save it?

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