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Anger and the Brain: What happens in your head when you get angry

I think understanding information on the brain is essential in laying a foundation for anger management. Your brain is the center of your logic and emotions. By understanding how your body works, you can make better sense over why you think and feel what you do when angry.

Scientists have identified a specific region of the brain called the amygdala, as the part of the brain that processes fear, triggers anger, and motivates us to act. It alerts us to danger and activates the fight or flight response. Researchers have also found that the prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that controls reasoning, judgment and helps us think logically before we act.

Stereotypically, women are thought of as emotional and men as logical, but biology reveals this as false. Curiously, the inverse in true. Scientists have discovered that men have a larger part of their brain devoted to emotional responses and a smaller region for logical thinking than women. This makes sense if you consider the energy needed to be vigilant for self-protection. Men are hard wired for hunting, competition and dominance. Their powerful emotional outbursts of anger, when seen through the hunter gatherer lens, are helpful to come out on top during a confrontation.

Men in the hunter-gatherer world needed a large amygdala to quickly respond when scanning the terrain for potential danger: Is this bad? Could it hurt me? If the information registered as dangerous, the amygdala broadcasts a distress signal to the entire brain, which in turn, triggers a cascade of physiological responses–from a rapid heart rate to jacked-up blood pressure to tense muscles to the release of adrenaline. Within milliseconds, men explode with rage or freeze in fear, well before their prefrontal cortex can even grasp what is happening.

For example, say you’re in a crowded restaurant and the noise of chatter from dozens of conversations fills the air. Suddenly a waiter drops a tray with several glasses, which crashes and shatters as they hit the floor. Automatically, the restaurant comes to a dramatic halt as everyone simultaneously falls to a hush. There is an instinctual reflex to stop and freeze when there is a sudden loud noise.

This raises the important point that the brain doesn’t immediately know if an experience is real or imagined. How can this be? While the amygdala and prefrontal cortex are working towards the same goal, to help you survive, they come at the problem from different directions.

Say you’re watching a movie. If it is a scary movie and you hear a noise outside, your amygdala will say, “Get up and lock the door.” Your prefrontal cortex knows there is no ax murderer outside but you will likely get up and lock the door anyways. Or say you’re watching a sad movie. You know it is a movie and no one died, but you may begin to cry anyways. All of these circumstance sets off false alarms, which unleashes the same level of feeling as if the real event were happening. This means that if the brain can’t tell what is dangerous and what isn’t, everything seems like a threatened.

The amygdala’s emotional response provides a mechanism to work around the limitation of the prefrontal cortex’s reasoning. For example, the prefrontal cortex will remember what your ex-partner looks like, that petite brunette who dumped you for a new lover. It is the amygdala that is responsible for the surge of fury that floods your body when you see someone who looks even vaguely like your former mate.

And “vaguely” is the operative word here. For when the amygdala tries to judge whether a current situation is hazardous, it compares that situation with your collection of past emotionally charged memories. If any key elements are even vaguely similar–the sound of a voice, the expression on a face–your amygdala instantaneously lets loose its warning sirens and an accompanying emotional explosion.

This means even vague similarities can triggers fear signals in the brain, alerting you of a threat. This false alarm happens because the goal is to survive, there is an advantage to react first and think later.

Anger and the Brain: What happens in your head when you get angry

Aaron Karmin


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APA Reference
Karmin, A. (2016). Anger and the Brain: What happens in your head when you get angry. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 20, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/anger/2016/06/anger-and-the-brain/

 

Last updated: 3 Jun 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 3 Jun 2016
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.