This Is What Happens to Your Body When You're Angry
Seeing red can trigger your brain to go into overdrive.
Anger is a common emotion that almost all of us have experienced to some degree. From the small irritations (like when someone cuts in line while you're waiting for your morning cup of joe) to the big, blow-ups (like finding out a loved one has been unfaithful), most of us have felt the familiar heat of irritation build up until it boils over into full-blown anger.
But, what exactly happens inside of our minds and bodies when anger causes our blood to "boil" or our eyes to "see red?" We connected with health experts to find out what exactly happens to your body when you're angry.
What is anger?
According to neurosurgeon and author, Paul Edward Kaloostian MD, FACS, FAANS, anger is the emotion that develops in response to threats or stressors that are presented to us. "The emotion of anger begins with us feeling a certain way due to us seeing or hearing or thinking about something in particular that we do not like," Kaloostian explains. "This electrical signal then is sent to the amygdala of the brain that then stimulates the hypothalamus." The role of the amygdala is to help with emotional processing, like fear and pleasure.
For example, if someone were to cut in front of you in line. The discourtesy would be the triggering event that sends the message to the amygdala and triggers the hypothalamus. "The average adult experiences anger about once a day and becomes annoyed or peeved about three times a day." This means the typical amygdala gets quite the workout.
There are two sources that cause anger.
Not all anger is prompted by external stimuli, according to Kaloostian. He says there are two sources of anger: external and internal. "Internal is from irrational perceptions of reality and low frustration points (misinterpret normal events and things around us, low frustration tolerance, unreasonable expectations, and people rating)," he says. "External sources are from personal attacks and threats, and people's level of tolerance being beaten down over time with repeated events."
Remember that guy who cut you off in the coffee line? He's an external source of anger. However, if the next time you show up at your favorite coffee shop and you find yourself irrationally mad at the person who walked in behind you because you think they may skip ahead of you in line, that's an internal source of anger.
Anger can make you feel out of control.
If anger has ever left you feeling out of control, it's likely because you weren't in control in the first place. Or, at least, the logical part of your brain wasn't. According to Dr. Waqas Ahmad Buttar, a family physician with Sachet Infusions, the cerebral cortex is the part of your brain that's responsible for logical thinking. However, that part of your brain tends to go MIA when you're experiencing extreme emotions. Instead, it's the limbic system that steps up and takes over. "When we're angry, we use [the limbic system], and ignore the cortex," he explains. Which makes sense, since the limbic system is where that well-trod amygdala is located.
And, in addition to being where emotional memories are stored, the amygdala is also where our fight-or-flight mode is activated. "And, when we receive a threat—which is what usually makes us angry—the amygdala sends an alarm that results in us protecting ourselves," Buttar says. "This part reacts before the prefrontal cortex, which is why we get impulsive and say things we regret later; we literally can't think of a logical argument while angry."
It's common to experience a physical response to anger.
Your brain isn't the only part of your body that reacts when you're mad. "Anger can trigger the sympathetic system and cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure and respiratory rate, thus affecting the heart and lungs," explains Kaloostian. Which is why so many people report seeing red, or feeling that pulse quickening burst of adrenaline. Your brain is sending signals to the rest of your body that it's time to get ready to respond to the negative stimuli as a way to protect itself.
Your childhood may be what determines how you deal with anger.
Experts believe that anger isn't something that people are born with, but instead, something that they learn as children. "As children, we learn by copying the behaviors of others around us and growing up in a home where fighting and arguing is constant, with us learning to accept this behavior as normal," explains Kaloostian, adding that this is something that can lead to bullying. "Fear and sadness are emotions as well that may directly turn into anger if proper cognitive mechanisms are not [put] in place to heal and mitigate such emotions."
In theory, how you respond to irritations, both big and small, will be determined by how your parents handled their emotions. This is good news for some but can be devastating for those raised around violence. According to Kaloostian, uncontrolled anger can trigger violence, injury to oneself and others, and cognitive or emotional injury. Furthermore, he says that anger is directly associated with a higher risk of heart disease.
The benefits of anger:
Don't worry though, it's not all bad news. "Anger has benefits evolutionarily speaking as it helps us overcome fear and [build] confidence to respond to dangers or threats," Kaloostian says. Anger, frustration, and even disappointment can all benefit us when we learn to control it and learn from it. While anger isn't a bad emotion by any means, it's imperative to be aware of how it can affect you and the others around you.