The Red Mist: What Happens In An Angry Brain.


It’s been one of those days. You overslept and were late for an important meeting at work. Your boss is giving you the evil eye and you are feeling physically sick. The photocopier then spits the dummy and refuses to print out the 150 sheets you need for tomorrow’s presentation. A driver cuts in front of you in the freeway almost causing you to have an accident and you realise you forgot to collect your son from his after school sport training. Your son is cross as he gets into the car, throws his muddy sports gear across the back seat and slams the car door. You react by shouting at him.

Anger is a normal human emotion. We all get angry. We see anger expressed all around us, from screaming toddlers having tantrums in the supermarket, to belligerent teenagers slamming bedroom doors, to news reports of stabbings. When we are angry we say things which can be deliberately hurtful to the intended victim, we may even be physically aggressive.

Anger is a protective emotion. It guards us against attack. It provokes a physiological change in our body getting us ready to fight or flee and is associated with a psychological change in our brain.

When angry, our emotion can be usually easily detected by others: clenched tight muscles, facial flushing, narrow focused attention on the source of anger, raised blood pressure, increased breathing and heart rate. Our testosterone levels increases as does our adrenaline and noradrenaline.

How we react when angry, varies from person to person. We all learn to handle anger differently, depending on culture, socio-economic background, gender and personality. Some people deal with anger better than others. Some people are constantly irritable, hostile, and short tempered with a short fuse. Others are slow boilers, mostly easy going but capable of blowing off like a volcano occasionally.

In order to learn how to handle anger better, we need first to understand our amygdala.

Our amygdala is part of our reptilian brain, the oldest part of our brain developmentally and it is concerned with our emotional regulation. Nestled deep in the brain the two almond-shaped amygdala (one in each hemisphere) react to potential threats. They do this so well that our body reacts and primes itself to respond before the thinking part of the brain, the cortex, can evaluate what the situation actually is and whether any or what response is actually warranted.

Losing your cool at work.

At best this may have a negative impact on the relationship you have with your colleagues. At worst you may find yourself at risk of either losing your job ( unless you are the boss where you might lose an employee) or missing out on a promotion. Women who display anger in the workforce are seen in a particularly negative light. Fair or not, anger in men in the workplace for some reason is more tolerated.

Learning to control your anger is possible and can make a significant difference to your own level of happiness and well-being. Angry people have a much higher incidence of stroke, heart disease and impaired immune function. It’s bad for your health to be angry and it also has a bad effect on your thinking skills and mental performance.

Have you heard the saying that “As emotion goes up, intelligence goes down.” ? Or, as my mother always said. If you argue with an idiot, then you have two idiots. That doesn’t mean only stupid people get angry and argue, but that when you are angry your level of reasoning and logic is greatly reduced. What you may say or how you behave, can be completely irrational and out of character.

Once the amygdala has triggered the alarm, the cortex registers this and if our thinking brain goes along with the experience of anger, several things will occur.

First up the left side of our brain becomes more active and draws us closer to the source of our anger. When we are happy or experiencing positive emotions we expect our thoughts to bring us closer to the stimulus. Conversely when we are sad or afraid we would otherwise seek to get away from what is causing us to feel negative emotions and this involves stimulation of the right hemisphere. Anger is different because it is a negative emotion and yet we are drawn closer to who or what is making us angry, rather than moving away from it.

Anger management.

There are a number of strategies we can adopt to deal with anger:

• Because being angry provokes a focus onto the source of the irritation or anger, the easiest way to defuse the emotion is to remove yourself from the stimulus. Try going for a walk or at least leaving the room before you blow your top.

• By physically moving away or trying to detach yourself emotionally from the situation gives your cortex or thinking brain time to evaluate the situation. Try counting slowly to ten before allowing yourself to say anything!

• Take six deep slow breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Use diaphragmatic breathing: put your hand gently on your tummy and when breathing in or out allow your tummy muscles to go in and out. This helps to alleviate muscular tension and calms you down.

• Journal or write down your thoughts and then tear them up, preferably the following day. Never ever,ever send an email in anger. It might come back to bite you on the bottom.

• Try smiling. It’s really hard to stay angry at someone while smiling at the same time. It helps to lighten the moment.

• If someone is displaying anger at you, remember that that is their framework that they are looking through. You don’t have to share the same frame and buy into it. Is their anger really directed at you? Or are they just voicing their frustration/irritation and you just happen to be the nearest venting post? We don’t know what is going on in someone elses head. It’s their issue and they have to deal with it. The important thing is to not allow yourself to be infected by their negativity (somehow!)

• Give your anger a time-frame. OK, so someone has really gotten under your skin or made you feel really mad at them. How long are you going to allow yourself to experience that anger? By choosing to stay with your anger/hurt pride/wounded feelings etc it impacts your ability to respond and deal with what else is going on in the world. Angry people are not fun to be around. So you’re upset, now get over it.

• None of us are perfect and even with practice there are going to be times when our hot buttons get pressed and we react badly. So don’t beat yourself up if that happens. Afterwards, look at what may have been the trigger and learn from it. Was there a way you could have handled it differently?

• Don’t forget to apologise. It doesn’t matter whether you were in the right or wrong. You are apologising for your behaviour. You may or may not be forgiven for your anger but acknowledging your reaction was perhaps inappropriate or unhelpful can help. As long as you are sincere Saying sorry can go a long way to resolve conflict.

So what do you do to handle anger?

Ref: Neus Herrero, Marien Gadea, Gabriel Rodriguez-Alarcon, Raul Espert, Alicia Salvador. What happens when we get angry? Hormonal, cardiovascular and asymetrical brain responses. Hormones and Behaviour, 2010; 57 (3): 276 DOI: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2009.12.008

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