Did you ever wonder what happens in the brain when we become angry? Why the common myth of counting to ten never works? Anger is one of the basic human emotions, as elemental as happiness, sadness, or anxiety. These emotions are tied to basic survival and were honed over the course of human history.
Everyone knows the feeling. It’s that rage that rises when a driver is cut off on the highway—and just wants to floor it and flip the bird. Anger doesn’t dissipate just because it is unleashed; in fact, that can reinforce and deepen it.
A specific region of the brain called the amygdala processes fear, triggers anger, and motivates us to act. It alerts us to danger and activates the fight or flight response. Frustration, such as facing roadblocks while trying to achieve a goal, can also trigger the anger response. Anger starts with the amygdala stimulating the hypothalamus, much like in the fear response. In addition, parts of the prefrontal cortex may also play a role in anger. People with damage to this area often have trouble controlling their emotions, especially anger and aggression.
Anger comes from a variety of sources and can vary widely. Some common anger triggers include:
- personal problems, such as missing a promotion at work or relationship difficulties
- a problem caused by another person such as canceling plans
- an event like bad traffic or getting in a car accident
- memories of a traumatic or enraging event
In other cases, an anger problem may be caused by early trauma or events in a person’s life that have shaped their personality. In some cases, hormonal changes can also cause anger, as can certain mental disorders.
Counting to ten when you’re feeling angry could actually make things worse. Tests on students in a stressful situation found that taking time to ‘focus’ on a situation actually makes people angrier.
The worst thing to do in an anger-inducing situation is what people normally do: try to focus on their hurt and angry feelings to understand them. You should, however, go on a run, read a book, or write in a journal. Exercising helps blood flow which in turn helps calm nerves. Reading will help distract and can help you concentrate on another activity. Writing in a journal can help bring together your thoughts and help calm your nerves.