Author: Jeevitha Ramesh, Research associate
Mr. A is a hardworking and polite employee of the XYZ manufacturing company. On one occasion, he was not able to meet the deadline for his assignment. This was because of the lack of cooperation from his colleagues. Additionally, the boss called for a customer meeting the very next day. Moreover, Mr. A’s stress levels shot up when his wife called him to announce the arrival of some guests the next day. With a massive rush of these thoughts in mind, he enters the canteen to have lunch. As he fills his plate, the man next to him mistakenly spills some food falls off Mr. A’s plate. He became furious and started yelling incessantly at that man.
This incident makes us ponder about the behavior of Mr. A. What made Mr. A behave this way? What must be going on in Mr. A’s brain? We all know that Mr. A was under stress and was angry when the incident took place.
Anger is a basic emotion that each one of us have experienced. Anger isn’t necessarily a “bad” emotion. Like all emotions, it conveys a message about a situation, i.e., that a situation is upsetting, unjust, or threatening. If your instant reaction to anger is to explode, the particular message never gets conveyed. So, while it’s perfectly normal to feel angry when you’ve been mistreated or wronged, anger becomes a significant problem when you express it in a harmful way.
Anger may make people feel strong and sturdy, which may motivate them to believe that they are right. Anger can also be channelized well, for example, by excelling in sports and other competitive domains. However, anger can also lead to unnecessary confrontations between people.
Having frequent feelings of anger can impact relationships, psychological well-being and quality of life. Suppressing anger also has a harmful and lasting impact. The journal CNS Spectrums (2015) reported that 7.8 percent of people in the US experienced inappropriate, intense or poorly controlled anger.
However, there is a possibility of converting anger into a positive emotion. But, if you discover that your anger turns to aggression or outbursts, then you need to find healthy ways to deal with it. Anger management is one of the effective ways to control aggressive catharsis of emotions. The goal of anger management is to scale back both your emotional feelings and the physiological arousal caused by anger. You may not always be able to avoid the things or the people who enrage you, nor can you change them. Hence it becomes inevitable to learn to regulate your own emotions and reactions through anger management programs.
Anger management programs involve a diverse range of skills that help in recognition of the signs of anger and also handles triggers in the best possible way. Managing anger doesn’t include holding it in or avoiding associated feelings but instead dealing with it. Dealing with anger is an acquired skill that almost anyone can learn with time, patience and dedication.
So, we all know that people get angry for several reasons. Let us now explore the parts of our brain that are responsible for the expression of reactive aggression.
The cerebral cortex is the thinking part of the brain where rational thinking, logic and judgment reside. It is the outer portion of the brain and is classified into lobes. Think of the cortex as the strategic center of the brain. The emotional center of the brain is the limbic system. It is located lower in the brain and is considered to be more primitive than the cortex. Besides the primary parts of the brain that process anger, the frontal cortex is essential for the regulation of anger. This includes the orbital, medial and ventrolateral frontal lobes. Different parts of the frontal lobe are found to decrease amygdala activity, which could have implications with emotional suppression. Moreover, various frontal regions are directly involved with the anger response.
When someone is experiencing and expressing anger, he or she isn’t using the thinking part of the brain (cortex), but instead, the limbic center of the brain. In the limbic system, there is a tiny structure called the amygdala, which is a storehouse for emotional memories. It is also the area of the brain that is responsible for our “fight or flight” reactions, our natural survival instincts.
The data coming in from our surroundings pass through the amygdala, where the decision regarding its course is made. If the incoming data triggers enough emotional charge, the amygdala will override the cortex, i.e., the data will be sent to the limbic system. Various studies with patients having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have found that increased amygdala activity in their brains.
During an overriding event, the amygdala goes into action without much regard for the results. This reactive incident is referred to as “Amygdala hijacking.” During this time, a flood of hormones is released in the bloodstream that causes physical and emotional changes. A surge of energy follows, which prepares a person for the fight or flight response. The impact of this hormonal flush lasts for several minutes, during which the person is typically out of control and says or does things which the individual regrets later.
When we get angry, the heart rate, arterial tension and testosterone production increases, cortisol (the stress hormone) decreases, and the left hemisphere of the brain becomes more stimulated.
We’ve talked so much about anger, but what should one do about it? Anger isn’t a pleasing experience, and there should be ways to mitigate it. An article by Eric Barker cites multiple studies explaining the consequences of anger suppression. “Experimental studies have shown that suppression leads to decreased positive but not negative emotion experience” and “Experimental studies have reported that suppression results in less linking from social interaction partners and to an increase in partners’ blood pressure levels” (Barker 2017). There are numerous interventions shown to reduce harmful levels of anger (Beck and Fernandez, 1998; Hofmann et al., 2011). One such intervention is meditation (Hofmann et al., 2011).
Emotional intelligence is also instrumental in handling anger effectively. It’s the rational way of channelizing your emotions into the appropriate direction rather than venting them aggressively.
For instance, a person who had a bad day at work starts yelling at his driver, who drives slowly. This isn’t an emotionally intelligent action. It might seem that the driver’s pace is the reason for that person’s anger, but the main reason behind it is the fact that he had a bad day and just wanted to get rid of his suppressed emotions. By understanding how to take emotionally intelligent actions, one will be able to control their anger in a much better way.
Being emotionally intelligent won’t just assist you in recovering from your anger, but it’ll also help you to avoid these perceptual problems, which are the basic explanation for many psychological disorders.
If suppression isn’t the solution, then what is? The first is a distraction. If you distract yourself from what is frustrating you and focus on something else, your brain will have a hard time latching on to what is frustrating you. Read a book, watch a movie, go out, play a sport or exercise. Do something which makes you feel better and takes all of your attention. The second method of handling anger is reappraisal, for instance, when someone is yelling at you, although your first reaction could also be anger if you were to reappraise things, you would possibly feel compassion rather than anger
A pressure cooker can be used as a metaphor for anger, where anger builds up inside a person like steam inside a pressure cooker. Using this analogy, there are three ways to deal with increasing steam. One way is by keeping the pressure inside the cooker until it explodes. A second way is by reducing the pressure by periodically releasing some of the steam, as described using standard terms like “venting” and “blowing off steam.” The third (and the best) way is by lowering the flame and reducing the heat! Instead of stuffing anger inside or expressing it outwardly, get rid of it. Stuffing anger harms the self. Expressing anger hurts us as well as the people around us.
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