Anger: How and Why our Brains Take Over

When we are frustrated and angry with someone we love, we tend to act in ways and say things that we regret shortly after. It usually helps when I explain that there are very good reasons our brains short circuit when we are angry (making us short circuit), and that there are neurochemical and survival instinct dynamics at play. Anger is a human emotion that has very good reason for its existence. The emotion of anger should not be ignored, nor its existence denied in our lives.  Of most importance is that anger is expressed in ways that do not leave you feeling pangs of guilt and embarrassment or get you into trouble at the end of the day. Let’s first start out with the physiological and neurochemical responses that occur inside of us when we experience anger.

When we are in emotional distress (angry, panicky, frustrated, anxious) our bodies become physiologically aroused. This means that our heart starts pumping faster, our blood pressure raises and our breathing patterns shift. It is an experience that we are all familiar with. The reason our bodies do this to us is because our brain has been triggered by something in our environment that indicated we may be in a situation that is a threat to us, and therefore, our brains are helping our bodies prepare to fight (become aggressive) or flight (run). This is our basic human survival instinct.

Once we notice our bodies have become physiologically aroused, this is a cue that your brain has started to spit-fire a powerful concoction of cortisol and neurotransmitters called catecholamines, which is a fancy term for a group of chemically-related messengers in our brain that dictate how we feel and what we do. Just for fun, you should know the principal neurotransmitters that are released when we are in emotional distress are norepinephrine, dopamine and epinephrine. Our brain, particularly the frontal cortex, quickly becomes immersed in these neurotransmitters, resulting in extreme difficulty being able to make good decisions, process information, have good judgement and impulse control. Also, our amygdala, which is the part of our brain controlling fear and aggression, literally takes over causing us to react before the rational parts of our brain have a chance to think it over.

This cascade of events leads to a decrease in your ability to take in information and hear what the other person is saying; reduces your ability to hear well; makes it difficult to sustain attention; reduces your peripheral vision; encourages you to take a defensive posture and tone; reduces your ability to problem-solve, listen, empathize and makes it very difficult to see any positives in the situation.  Consider just how helpful all of this would be if we were truly in an emergent situation where we were at risk. On the other hand, consider just how detrimental this can be to our lives and relationships if we are not in an emergent situation requiring such a response. This is why it is imperative to have insight into yourself, the function of your anger response, and the function of the anger responses of those you love.

So, what can you do to mitigate the risk that you will act in ways or say things you will likely regret later? For most people, angry feelings dissipate in as little as 20 minutes. Research suggests that those who dwell on the situation that caused them to experience anger is not helpful, as it can result in lashing out in ways you may regret after you’ve simmered down. Basically, it’s not a good idea to sit around and replay the scenario in your head, or conjure up ideas of a good response to get your point across to the object of your anger.

Here is what you can do:

  1. When you are not in a moment of emotional distress or anger, discuss with your loved one or friends what you have learned about the brain and survival function of anger. Come up with a code word that is understood by yourself and others. One that will be respected. Also, come up with a timeframe that you will be gone for. As a general rule, no less than 30 minutes and no more than 24-hours is the length of time you should avoid the object of your frustration or anger.
  2. The moment you notice your body becomes physiologically aroused (sweating/becoming warm, increased heart rate and blood pressure, changes in breathing, etc.) this is your que that your brain has started to release those powerful neurotransmitters. This is the very moment you need to use your code word. Just say the code word and exit the room or location. The purpose of this is to save yourself and anyone else around you from acting in ways or saying things that you will likely regret later. If you catch yourself soon enough, you can prevent those catecholamines from completely dispersing and taking over your rational brain.
  3. Go to a place where you can engage in some relaxation techniques, or the coping skill that works for you, until you start to notice your physiological arousal unwind. After your physiology has returned to your baseline, that is a sign that you are more likely to be rational.

Those who feel they are consistently unable to control feelings of anger and the expression of anger may benefit from professional counseling. There may be other contributing factors in addition to what is written in this article that are important to have evaluated and to ensure proper treatment.