Anger can be one of the most difficult emotions to express in a healthy way. It often feels scary or overwhelming, and when you don’t have control over it, it can hurt your relationships with family, loved ones, and even yourself.
But if you manage your anger well, it can become a useful tool. Well-managed anger can motivate you to make positive changes in your life— and it can even sharpen your brain and improve decision-making.
Understanding how anger works can help you manage it better and turn it into something that helps you instead of holding you back. In this article, you’ll learn how anger affects your brain and body at a physiological level, and how you can take advantage of those changes.
How Anger Changes Your Brain
Anger sets off a chain reaction of chemical changes in your brain.
Psychologically speaking, you usually feel angry in response to a negative emotional trigger. Common triggers include:
- Perceived injustice
When something makes you angry, the first thing that changes is your amygdala— a region deep in the middle of your brainhttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4692323/.
When the amygdala turns on, it decreases blood flow to your prefrontal cortex, the brain region that controls rational thought and decision-making. As a result, anger leads to impulsivity, decreased judgment, and lowered inhibitions.
Anger also decreases activity in your hippocampus, which impairs short-term memory. That’s why you may not remember what you say or what happens around you when you’re mad.
More blood goes toward visual and auditory processing regions of your brain, giving you better short-term visual processing and better hearing.
Basically, when you get angry, your brain becomes primed for immediate action. Your planning and judgment systems power down and your vision and hearing become sharper, allowing you to act immediately and think later.
This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. When we lived in the wild, situations that triggered anger or aggression were often dangerous or even life-threatening. They demanded that you respond quickly without second-guessing yourself.
How Anger Changes Your Body
Your HPA axis is what controls your fight-or-flight response. It pumps out stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that prime your body for activity.
When you get angry, you get more blood flow to your muscles, as well as increased heart rate and higher blood pressure. Your digestion slows down, and your body shunts glucose and fatty acids into your blood for quick energy.
Again, your body has evolved for quick action in response to situations that make you stressed or angry. It primes your muscles for action and makes sure you have plenty of oxygen and available energy in case you need to take fast, powerful physical action.
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Is Anger Good or Bad?
Anger is neither good nor bad. It’s a powerful emotion and it can often be frightening or difficult to manage. However, everyone gets angry, and it’s important to feel it and express it honestly.
Research shows that expressing both positive and negative emotions leads to better long-term health over time.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3768126/
Expressing negative emotion (including anger) also leads to more happiness and better relationships with loved ones.https://clarkrelationshiplab.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/The%20positives%20of%20negative%20emotions_%20Willingness%20to%20express%20negative%20emotions%20promotes%20relationships.pdf
So while anger can be difficult to deal with, it’s important to manage it and express it well. Doing so can actually make your life better and lead to deeper relationships with the people you care about.
That said, chronic anger, whether repressed or suppressed, leads to increased risk of:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Eating disorders
- Car accidents
- Dysfunction in relationships
Everyone faces setbacks and challenges in life, and anger is a normal response to hardship. It’s how you express your anger that matters. Healthy expression can bring you closer to loved ones and improve your long-term health, while unhealthy expression or repression can cause problems for your long-term wellbeing.
If you struggle to express your anger in a productive way, it’s worth considering talking to a clinical psychologist or therapist. A mental health professional can help you understand your anger and figure out how to express it in a way that makes you stronger, not weaker.
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