The Anatomy of Anger

Anger, while a normal human emotion, can sometimes get us into trouble. It can negatively affect our work, our relationships, and even our physical and mental health. But to understand anger, it’s important to realize what’s behind it. First, your brain is triggered. Anger often serves as a protective mask for more painful, raw emotions, such insecurity, guilt, shame, fear, disappointment, judgment, frustration, or even sadness. Triggers can also include certain people, places, things, activities, events, situations, or even our own unhelpful thoughts. Second, a chemical reaction occurs in the brain that causes several unpleasant things to happen, including the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. What’s the problem with an increased secretion of these hormones? For starters, increased cortisol can actually kill off our brain cells! It can also reduce the production of serotonin, the hormone responsible for happiness. Less serotonin also means an increased risk or depression, and you guessed it – more anger. Stress hormones also wreak havoc on the body, by negatively affecting everything from our hearts to our immune system. Recognize Your Warning Signs In order to tame your temper, you may want to keep an anger journal or log to help you start to notice patterns or triggers.
  • Identify the “primary” feeling or emotion. What’s really behind the anger?
  • Identify physical changes within your body: you feel hot or flushed; hands or body trembles; your breathing becomes shallow, fast, or heavy; you begin to sweat; you clench your jaw or fists; your muscles tense; your heart races; your mind goes blank or you feel dizzy; you become nauseous; or you develop a headache.
  • Identify behavioral changes: you start to cry; you become aggressive; you begin yelling or swearing; you begin pacing; you become physically or verbally violent; you become argumentative; you become obsessive; or you become very quit, shutdown, or withdrawn.
  • Identify the consequences of your anger: could your anger interfere with your relationships, your job, or your health? Could you even get into legal trouble?
Managing Anger Sometimes we can make lifestyle changes to avoid our triggers; for example, reducing the amount of time spent with certain people, reducing our exposure to the news, or changing unhelpful thinking patterns. But unless we live in a bubble, we can’t avoid all of our triggers, but we can learn to develop healthy coping skills to minimize the risk of the consequences that anger can bring.
  • Make sure to get enough sleep.
  • Work on establishing and enforcing boundaries. In other words, learn to say no. This takes practice and you can expect to get pushback from people who aren’t used to you having boundaries.
  • Take time each day to laugh. Joke around with friends and co-workers or watch a comedy before bedtime.
  • Talk it out with a friend, trusted co-worker, or even a therapist, who can help you to identify what’s underneath the anger and to help you learn healthy coping skills.
  • Get your body out of fight or flight mode by practicing deep breathing or progressive muscle relation on a daily basis.
  • Get regular exercise to reduce stress hormones.
  • Engage in regular hobbies and self-care.
  • Try to avoid toxic people and drama when possible.
  • Take a time out. Walk away; better yet, take a walk!
  • Use guided imagery. I use this technique with clients experiencing a lot of stress and trauma. Visualize a safe and comfortable place. It can be real or imagined. Use all of your senses to experience this safe place. Where are you? What do you see? Are there other people there or are you alone? Are there animals there? What is the weather like? What does it smell like? What do you feel? Can you feel a soft breeze upon you or maybe grass or sand beneath your feet? Do you hear ocean waves or birds chirping? What sounds do you notice in this safe place?
  • Adopt healthy communication skills and learn to express yourself by being assertive, once you’ve calmed down.
  • Get creative: keep a journal or express your anger through art, poetry, or music.
Are you struggling with anger? Contact us to schedule an appointment and let us help you manage your anger and gain healthy coping skills. By Jennifer Blough, LPC