Anger is a message from the body. It’s the body’s response to something it perceives as threatening.
You may not even be consciously aware of the threat, but your body alerts you to the danger it perceives, and it does this so you can step in and take urgent action to neutralize the danger.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had to be constantly ready to size up a potential predator and then choose quickly between a fight to the death or a flight to safety. For them, there was no two ways about it— they would either live or die. But most situations in the modern world are far more nuanced, and they include contradictory elements—danger and safety, excitement and boredom, affection and irritation. That’s why, in today’s world, it’s not always the big things that lead to eruptions of anger; sometimes it’s the little things going on all the time—losing a parking space, getting stuck behind a slowpoke in the supermarket checkout line, stubbing your toe, a waiter dropping a tray of glasses that then shatter on the floor. These are the everyday stressors that overwhelm you and trigger your body’s fight-or-flight response.
The moment your body perceives a threat, the brain undergoes striking changes. Communication breaks down between the prefrontal cortex, where rational thought and judgment reside, and the amygdala, where fear rules the day. Your brain gets pumped up on hormones like testosterone and noradrenalin and epinephrine. It’s the latter two that pack the real emotional punch. But they also make you more focused and alert in response to the threat. You’ve probably experienced the surge of energy known as an adrenaline rush. This surge helps mobilize your mus- cles as it temporarily sharpens your senses and enhances certain types of memory.
As this automatic, instinctual response continues, your pupils dilate, your heart speeds up, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow, your digestion slows, and your perspiration increases. Your brain even becomes deprived of blood and oxy- gen as those precious resources are rushed directly to your large muscles so you’ll be ready to move fast if you need to.
You’ll also be feeling especially sure of being in the right, and you’ll be powerfully convinced that it’s important for you to do something right now. And so it starts—the blaming, the arguing, the yelling, the hitting . . . the list goes on. After all, how can you think clearly when your brain is starving for blood and oxygen? Your rational mind is no match for your body’s fight-or-flight response, and it will take you a full 20 minutes to calm down phys- ically and psychologically even after the response has stopped.
There’s nothing more urgent than danger, and as far as your body is concerned, you’re back in the same neck of the woods where one of your ancient forebears was devoured by a predator capable of extinguishing the entire human species. Your fight-or-flight response tells you that you’re facing a potentially fatal threat, that you must kill it or run away from it as fast as you can, and that you must not allow this threat to come anywhere near you ever again.
The fight-or-flight response is useful in the short term—it tells you that some- thing is wrong, it opens your eyes to the situation around you, and it focuses your attention on what needs to be changed. But it’s an emergency response, a state of high arousal that your body isn’t built to maintain for very long. When this response endures over time, as it does when you’re in a chronic state of anger, your body starts to break down. Then the same physiological changes that are meant to help you in an emergency start to disrupt your sleep and diminish your appe- tite. Instead of feeling energetic and mentally focused, you lose energy, and your judgment becomes impaired. Parts of your brain stop communicating with each other, and brain tissue shrinks in the regions that control learning, memory, and rational thought.