When the link between high-stress lifestyles and heart attacks first emerged, researchers weren’t sure which factor in the so-called Type A personality was to blame – the obsessive career focus, the constant rush or the quickness to anger?
Duke researcher Redford Williams was one of the researchers who proved that it was the latter, and he has worked ever since to both explain why anger is deadly and to lessen people’s risk by helping them calm their natural hostilities.
It’s an ironic vocation for a self-identified Type A personality, and Williams has used his own experiences to write several books on controlling anger and to help create a behavioral program that has helped people worldwide live healthier lives.
Over 40 years, Williams’ research has been funded by more than $50 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health, and has included everything from laboratory tests to huge statistical surveys. He recently received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society of Behavioral Medicine for his work in the field.
And his research continues, now focusing on finding genetic markers that are tied to an increased anger response and higher heart attack rates.
Williams’ work is unusual both for his ability to attack the same questions using different methods and his commitment to bringing his findings to a mass audience, says Norman Anderson, CEO of the American Psychological Association and a former Duke researcher.
“He’s been one of the world’s leaders in helping us understand how the interaction between biology and a person’s behavior and emotions and environment affect their health,” says Anderson, who counts Williams as a mentor and friend. “He works at the highest levels of health science, but he’s also interested in translating his work for the benefit of the public.”
An intellectual bent
Williams spent most of his youth on the eastern shore of Virginia, though his family has deep roots in North Carolina.
His father came from a family of Johnston County tobacco farmers, one of 12 children. The elder Williams went to N.C. State University and would go on to manage migrant workers, a job that would lead Williams to live in several migrant camps as a child.
His mother’s family was also from North Carolina, and he spent many of his summers on their Burgaw farm.
The family settled in a rural area along the Virginia coast, and Williams remembers having more of an intellectual bent than most of his classmates.
One exception was the woman who would become his wife and business partner, whom he met through his high school debate club.
He graduated as valedictorian and was the first graduate of his high school to attend Harvard University, which he attended on a full scholarship.
One of his first classes was a seminar in behavioral science, in which he was asked to write a paper discussing what he called the “mind-body problem.”
“I’m still working on that assignment,” he jokes.
He came to Duke in 1972 after a brief time working at the National Institutes of Health.
Early in his career, a groundbreaking study proved that men who showed increased ambition, a sense of constant hurry and a low threshold for anger were significantly more likely to die of a heart attack than men who lacked these characteristics.
Williams says he attended a meeting of the American Heart Association when members were about to adopt this Type A personality as a risk factor for heart disease when a question cropped up: Could it be just one of these factors that’s so deadly?
Williams’ research pursued the hostility factor, which he calls the “noble hypothesis,” the one that would do the most good were it to be true.
“It was going to do a lot more good to show that being mean and angry is killing you than it was to show that getting places early and being devoted to your work are killing you,” he says, dry humor intact.
Type A answers
In the early 1980s, Williams helped show that this was indeed the case. One crucial study involved data from personality tests taken by UNC-Chapel Hill medical students in the 1950s.
Following up with those students 25 years later, those with high hostility scores were two to three times more likely to have had heart attacks and seven times more likely to have died, while the other characteristics of the Type A personality didn’t have a significant impact on heart health.
Lab studies showed that when people were angered or stressed, they experienced higher blood pressure and heart rate, and released more stress hormones – all of which contribute to heart attacks. The easily angered saw the worst of this phenomenon.
“It’s a normal way to be,” he says. “But the risk does grab your attention. The good news is it’s possible to learn how to manage anger better.”
In the early 1990s, Williams sought to bring this message to the public with the help of his own anger manager – his wife, who Williams says had been working for years to calm his outbursts.
The two of them penned several books meant to educate a mass audience on the perils of anger, and how to manage it. One, “Anger Kills,” earned them an appearance on the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” and they would continue to speak widely on anger issues.
The couple proposed a four-step decision process to help people identify the best reaction to feelings of anger in a particular situation, from meditating to channeling the impulse toward making change.
They started a company, Lifeskills, focused on selling this program to clients as varied as programs for juvenile offenders to individual businesses and entire countries.
Studies have shown that their program keeps the blood pressure of the person using it from rising when he or she is angry.
But Williams notes that anger can be useful in some situations. One of the steps is to decide whether it’s worthwhile to change the situation that has made you angry.
“If Rosa Parks hadn’t been angry, a lot of people would have sat in the back of the bus for much longer,” he says.
His current research has identified a genetic component to the increased release of stress hormones that some people experience, one that has also been linked to higher mortality rates.
This new area is paving the way for the possibility of identifying and treating people who are genetically predisposed to heart disease.
“Anger is still important, but we’re now beginning to look for people who have genetics that make them more sensitive to anger,” he says.
Williams still teaches a seminar course in health behavior in addition to his research program, which has been ongoing for decades. Last week, he was busy writing a grant proposal for the same grant he has gotten since 1985.
If he is awarded the grant for another five years, he’ll be 80 when it’s completed.
“I’ll keep doing it till it’s not interesting anymore,” says Williams. “And it’s hard to imagine that happening.”
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Dr. Redford B. Williams Jr.
Born: December 1940, Raleigh
Career: Professor of psychology and medicine, Duke University; founder and board chairman, Lifeskills Inc.
Education: A.B. Harvard University; M.D. Yale University
Family: Wife Victoria; children Jennifer and Lloyd; four grandchildren
Fun Fact: His senior year at Harvard, Williams was annoyed that he couldn’t get into the biology class he wanted. The professor of the class he ended up with was James Watson, who would win the Nobel Prize that year for discovering the structure of DNA.