Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Biology of Anger

When a person becomes angry there are two tell tale signs that you can see.  First is shallow heavy breathing, and the second is increased blood flow (seen as flushed face or felt as being hot).  The Bible makes several references to these types of anger.  The anger that is represented by breathing hard can be the result of a serious offence against you or someone you love or it can be as simple as a wish or desire unfulfilled.  We can all fall into this.  Most often others that see it will say "Are you angry?"  More often than not we play it off and say "No."  The fact is whether it is a serious situation or a trivial selfish whim the anger needs to be dealt with or it will develop into something worse. 

I have personally experienced the pains of my own anger unchecked as well as been the victim of others anger unchecked.  My guess is that we all have had this experience.  The question is why with all of our regret and discontent for the state of affairs do we fall into the trap of anger again and again.  I believe that anger is a complex emotion that has biological, psychological, and spiritual implications.  I would like to delve into the biological aspect first. 

Four words that come from the Bible that point to the biological implications of anger are in Hebrew af and awnaf (meaning rapid breathing), chemah (implying heat), and in Greek thymos (implying breathing hard).  Feeling hot and breathing hard (or rapid) are biological functions that serve a purpose.  These are similar to fight or flight.

Fight or flight (activation of the sympathetic nervous system) is a well documented and well researched phenomena within the field of neurology and psychology.   The biological systems affected by fight or flight are:

  • Respiratory (increased breathing rate and dilation of the bronchial tubes)
  • Cardiac (increased heart rate and dilation of blood vessels to the muscles, and constriction of blood vesicles to other parts of the body
  • Inhibition of digestion (that is digestion slows down or stops)
  • Paling or flushing (blood drained out or red faced)
  • dilation of pupils of the eyes
  • Auditory exclusion (loss of hearing)
  • Loss of peripheral vision (tunnel vision)
  • tremors
  • increased perspiration

These are all automatic responses that cannot be directly controlled by the person that is experiencing them.  What is more once this response kicks in it tends to build until the threat or perceived threat is removed.  Even after the threat is removed the effects of fight or flight slowly return to a normal state. 

The brain it the control center of biological functioning.  In the brain two parts are implicated in anger response: the lymbic system and the prefrontal cortex.  The lymbic system buried deep the brain is responsible for the automatic fight or flight response (Hypothalamus just below the thalamus) and the experience of emotion (Amygdala).  The Prefrontal Cortex (part of the frontal lobe) is responsible for planning, organizing, and reasoning.  Your brain is literally sending a mixed message.  One part is saying "hit this guy or run away." While the other part of your brain is saying "Maybe we could just talk to him."  When you blend those two together what comes out is a blend of the two.  Maybe you don't hit the guy, but you attack him verbally.  This is of course a gross oversimplification of brain functioning, but I hope that it illustrates the brain function of anger.  

What happens when the prefrontal cortex (the reasonable part of the brain) is not working properly or is diminished?  If the fight or flight response is unchecked then intense fear and/or intense rage occurs.  The resulting behavior becomes intensely violent/aggressive or extremely protective without much thought to the implications or consequences of this behavior.  This is why you will have a moment of anger then later you regret when the frontal cortex comes back online so to speak.  After the moment of anger is past you are now thinking with the front part of your brain realize the implications of what just happened where as when you were angry these thoughts we shut down or quieted. 

Biology of anger has implications in what we do with anger.  First there has to be a way to quiet down the fight or flight response.  The best way to do this is to relax.  Relaxation activates the parasympathetic nervous system which acts in opposition to the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight).  That is why it is not possible to be engaged and relaxed at the same time.  They are two incompatible biological states.  There are many ways to relax, counting exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, use of imagery, and meditation are some ways I have used to help people learn the skill of relaxation (see here for more information).  By practicing relaxation you lower you set level so that when the fight or flight kicks in you do not have as high a peak.  Also by learning relaxation you can also more quickly arrest and recover from fight or flight.  This takes much practice. 

Another thing you can do has to do with the thinking planning part of your brain.  The goal is to bring the prefrontal cortex on line early on so that you are responding rather than reacting to anger.  There are a couple of tricks to do this.  One is to recognize the difference between a real and perceived threat.  Anger is a response to a threatening situation.  When it really comes down to it there are very few situations in our day to day life that are real legitimate threats to our wellbeing.  To me a legitimate threat is being assaulted by someone or threatened of life and limb.  For example a guy with a gun pointed at you.  On the other hand being angry with a pool cover is not a legitimate threat to my well being.  If you reason that a threat is not legitimate then you need to relax, distract, or disengage.  Often though just recognizing that there is no legitimate threat is enough to being the process of cooling off.  A second trick to get the front part of your brain to activate is a series of questions based on the acronym "I AM Worth it" developed by Redford Williams MD.

  • Important:  Is this important to me?
  • Appropriate: Is it appropriate for me to be angry in this situation?
  • Modifiable: Is there something I can do about it?
  • Worth It: Is it worth it to do something in this situation?

If you answer all the questions yes then two things have happened.  One you have identified a legitimate problem to be solved.  Two you are now thinking and reasoning rather and angrily reacting.  On the other hand if you answer "no" to any of them then you are in a situation you have to cope with and again you are thinking over reacting.  By bringing your front part of your brain online you will being the process of quieting the biological anger response. 

What other ways can you think of to cool off or relax the biological response to anger?

God Bless You All

1. Duke Medicine Health Line "Why Anger Kills" Published: Nov. 26, 2007 Updated: May 24, 2010 Retrieved August 24, 2010.