We all get angry at some time or another. Anger is often called a “negative” emotion, and there’s no doubt that it’s not as much fun as happiness or laughing. Anger can also be a helpful motivator, giving us the strength to right personal and social wrongs. The key is learning to deal with it.
Anger is Learned
Learning to deal with anger is necessary because we learned how to be angry. Most people (including me!) are surprised when they find out that anger is not a primary emotion. It is a learned reaction to primary emotions. If Mom gets really pissed off because you ate the last slice of pizza, she is teaching you how to be angry. If Dad blows his stack because you didn’t wipe your feet before coming into the house, you learn anger that way.
Another dangerous model is repressed anger, managing problems in tooth-grinding silence. The bad part about this is that your body is still stressing horribly, while you try to pretend that it isn’t. Explosive craziness and repressed rage are the most popular responses to anger, but they are both unhealthy.
Anger Starts in the Brain
And what is going on inside us when anger flares? Anger starts in the brain, as all emotions do. Inside the brain, there are two areas called the amygdala, which is our primitive lizard brain. This part of the brain is very good at survival and threat elimination. While fear makes us run away from perceived threats, anger tells us to get close to the threat and destroy it: “Hulk Smash!” The amygdala is also really fast, so it forms the first impulses to charge into battle.
Another part of the primitive brains that gets excited is the hypothalamus. This is a part of the brain that acts as a brake and gas pedal combo, turning stress responses on and off. When we are angry, the brakes are cut, and we go pedal to the metal. The signals coming out of the amygdala are free to hurl us forward.
The Anger Chain Reaction
These impulses form a physical chain reaction. Adrenaline surges, increasing blood pressure and heart rate, and tightening your muscles. The body releases chemicals that make blood clot faster. It’s easy to see why anger is known to produce heart attacks and strokes. Those blood clots are forced through your arteries under high pressure. They wedge in places where they don’t belong and cut off the flow of oxygen, killing heart and brain cells. Doctors are starting to see anger as the emotional equivalent of high cholesterol.
Common signs of anger include:
- Faster breathing
- Muscle tension, especially in the face and neck
- Face turning pale or flushing,
- Sweating hot or cold,
- Shaking hands, and
I’m sure you also recognize these as signs of a heart attack or stroke. Chronically angry people are 19% more likely to have a heart attack, even if they are otherwise healthy!
Angry Every Day
Chronic anger throws our metabolism off, causing excessive eating and weight gain. And then there’s the release of the stress hormone, cortisol. Too much cortisol upsets blood sugar and riles up your thyroid. It also suppresses your immune system. Angry people suffer more colds and flu. You don’t have to have a heart attack for anger to make you sick!
If the amygdala gets out in front of the cortex too often, we don’t feel mentally sharp, either. Anger reduces our production of serotonin, and reduced serotonin leads to depression. Sometimes, it is hard to tell if someone is angry or depressed, or both.
Can nobody stop this menace? Yes, it’s the prefrontal cortex to the rescue! This part of the brain is much more evolved and powerful than the amygdala. It can soothe the enraged lizard living inside us. The cortex pats our spiky little head, and tells us that the threat is not really life or death, that we can calm down. It should be obvious that some people’s prefrontal cortex works better than others’.
It is important to understand that we can all train our cortexes to manage the amygdala better. The cortex is a bit slow off the mark, but is where we can manage our anger. This does not mean repressing it. It means learning a series of steps to take to relax and express ourselves appropriately. We don’t have to explode or end up with a seething pool of anger devouring our insides.
Here’s what we need to learn: 1) Relaxation techniques 2) Self-messaging techniques 3) Expression techniques. The idea is to apply each of these things in a practiced order, so that we can get the upper hand on our anger quickly. Our anger is a puzzle to be solved, not an alien parasite that takes control of our brains.
In my next article, I’ll be talking about Relaxation Techniques. These give the prefrontal cortex time to get between the amygdala and the World Outside. If an anger situation strikes, you can slip into a well-rehearsed Relaxation Response. You’ll be feeling better with the very next article, I promise.