Anger as a Risk Factor

We all get angry. We all lose our temper. But do you know how this affects your body? Let’s look at the science of anger.

When we get angry our bodies are flooded with stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which trigger the fight or flight response. This means our muscles tense up, digestion stops, and blood pressure increases. Severe anger also suppresses our ability to think clearly.

The body’s response to anger, much like stress, isn’t a bad thing if it’s just now and then. It becomes a problem, however, when it’s chronic. Chronic anger is linked to:

  • headaches, digestive issues, insomnia, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and skin problems

Elevated cortisol causes all kinds of problems. Too much cortisol decreases serotonin levels, which can lead to depression. It also causes loss of neurons in the prefrontal cortex, which slows down brain coordination and makes problem solving more difficult. And it kills and suppresses neurons in the hippocampus. Suppressed activity in the hippocampus weakens short-term memory and prevents you from properly forming new memories (perhaps why everyone’s version of the same argument will be a bit different).

Brain-men-at-work

It’s healthy to feel angry sometimes, but excessive focus on negative thoughts trains your brain to be angry more often. Your frontal lobe decides what’s important based on the amount of time and attention you give to it. The more you focus on negative thoughts, the more neurons and synapses your brain will make to support that negativity. Conversely, happy thoughts decrease cortisol and produce serotonin, which creates a sense of well-being. In general, happy people are more creative, solve problems faster, and are more mentally alert.

When learning to control and manage anger, it’s really important to learn to recognize the difference between things you can change, and things you can’t. My plane was delayed, which caused me to miss my connection. Was I ticked off? You bet. But as I watched the gate agent, who also had no control over the delay, being yelled at by an irate passenger, I decided to take a different, calmer approach. At the end of the day I arrived 3 hours later than planned, had time to catch up on a few emails, and finished a pretty good book while waiting for my next flight. I could have stewed and yelled and spent the afternoon angry, but what would have been the point? Letting go of negative feelings can be tough, but it’s soooo important.

Not making assumptions (I am so guilty of this) is another important one to remember. In the age of texting and emailing, tone and intent are often misunderstood. It’s important to get clarity when you need it. Pick up the phone and talk it out when you need to. If your friend/partner/spouse is short tempered with you, don’t assume they are angry with you. Ask if something is wrong or if they had a tough day. Some people don’t even realize they’re being rude or snappy until it’s pointed out.

Slow it down…. Take a breath, take a walk, close your eyes for a moment; whatever it takes to help you feel calmer. Then address whatever made you feel angry in a calm, rational manner.

breathe

Dig deep… Often times we’re holding on to anger that has nothing to do with whatever set us off in the moment. Anger begets anger. If it’s right there under the surface, it won’t be hard to find a trigger for it. Dig a little deeper and figure out how to let it go.

Practice compassion – with yourself and with others. Intolerance can lead to an increase in anger. Accept that we’re all different, and as much as you might want everyone around you to be your version of perfect, that’s just not going to happen. We all walk around with our own baggage, ideas, ideals, and grievances. Trying to see things from someone else’s point of view can often help you understand more and leave you feeling less angry.

compassion-kids

Exercise! Regular exercise helps improve mood and reduce stress. Exercise also helps burn up stress chemicals in the body and boosts production of mood regulating neurotransmitters. It’s also just feels good to release extra energy from the body. Being angry sends more energy to your muscles…use that energy to do something good for your body.

exercise runner

If you really struggle with controlling your anger, consider conflict resolution training, talk to a counselor, learn the art of meditation, or practice mindful yoga. All of these can help bring you into a greater state of peace and balance.

And remember, smiling is infectious. Even if you don’t feel like it…smile. It’s really hard not to feel a little better (and make everyone else around you feel good too) when you look so darn happy.

 

References:

Anger – How it Affects People. Betterhealth.vic.gov.au

Seeing Red: Anger Management. Experiencelife.com

The Deadly Effects of Anger on Your Health and Mind. Undergroundhealthreporter.com

Happy Brain, Happy Life. Psychologytoday.com

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