How Anger Affects Your Brain and Body

There are many sources of anger. We can be frustrated,  disappointed, or we may feel fear, rejection, shame judgment, or sometimes we are just plain angry and aren’t really sure why.  I have discussed in other posts the importance of tuning into your body. Usually we feel sensations there, and it is helpful to pay attention and tune in to what we are feeling. Is it that tightening of the chest? Or the pounding heartbeat? Maybe you can feel the beginning of a headache, or even the lump in your throat. The key is to pay attention to what is happening so we can learn from those sensations and get in touch with the messages we are receiving. 

I thought it would be helpful to know how anger affects our brain and body and then take a few action steps that can help us to calm down and learn to self-soothe.

  1. That first spark of anger activates the amygdala before we are even aware of it. This part of the brain is responsible for survival and maintenance.  It regulates our heartbeat, breathing and other vital organs. The basis need that we hope for is safety and avoiding harm and when we are angry we experience fear, anger, etc. We want to experience peace but this is not what is happening.
  2. Then our amygdala activates the hypothalamus.
  3. Our hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland by discharging corticotropin-releasing hormone.
  4. The pituitary activates the adrenal glands by releasing another hormone adrenocorticotropic hormone.
  5. Then the adrenal glands secrete stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline.. .

So by now you are probably saying, “Well, why should I care and you know this is somewhat boring.”

Yes, I know it is at times something we don’t want to think about but because we know so much more now than we did decades ago about our brain, but it is important to know how stress affects us and that we can make choices that will help us to learn to respond in ways that create a healthier lifestyle for us.

The other day I was watching the news and felt myself getting very nervous and agitated. I was angry when I watched the news. I just felt frustrated. I stood up. Turned the TV off, and I went outside for a walk. I came back later and felt much calmer. If I would have continued to listen to the TV, I am not sure what would have happened. I felt stuck. I realized I needed to do something different. Yes, I know it’s hard to break away sometimes, but I needed some self-care and compassion for myself. 

You see, when we are angry we experience different symptoms in our body and mind. The elevated cortisol hormones that have been released cause neurons to take in too much calcium  through their membrane. Research shows that a calcium overload can make cells fire too frequently and die. The hippocampus and the Prefrontal cortex are particularly vulnerable to cortisol and their are negative effects. 

Elevated cortisol in the Prefrontal cortex causes a loss of neurons. Therefore, when we have too much cortisol we can’t think as clearly, we are not able to use our best judgments, and sometimes we can’t have a conversation because we are flooded with our emotions and all we want to do is fight or run away.  It is then hard to make good decisions and plan for the future. 

Elevated cortisol kills neurons in the hippocampus and disrupts the creation of new ones. Therefore, sometimes too much cortisol affects and weakens our short -term memory. I see this many times when I am having a therapy session with people. They have been dealing with many stressors and when they talk about the events that led up to the fighting or trying to remember the event some people see it differently, because  again there are changes that happen in the brain and affect our body. We can all see things differently. Think about the time you went and saw a movie. We can all see the same movie, but walk out of the theater, and we can perceive things different just from seeing a movie. So think about that if you have been under some kind of stress that it affects us in many different ways. 

You see, when we are angry or experience a very stressful event, we release cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. AND the big thing to understand here is, that too much cortisol will decrease serotonin- that’s the hormone that makes you happy and feel content. A decrease in serotonin  can make you feel anger and pain more easily as well as lead to challenging behaviors such as aggression and this can lead to depression. 

These stress hormones affect our body.

They affect our Cardiovascular system with elevated heart rate , elevated blood pressure,  and many more symptoms. When these symptoms become chronic, blood vessels become clogged and damaged and can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

Our immune system is affected. Our Thyroid functions go down, our natural killer cells go down and number of virus -infected cells go up, and other diseases may occur.

Our digestive system is affected.. Blood flow goes down, metabolism goes down and sometimes we experience dry mouth.

We can get headaches, migraines may go up, etc. 

The important piece to understand is that our brain and body work together, and we all experience stress at times, and this can  come out as anger  as discussed here. We all try and do the best we can do, but sometimes we make mistakes and that is ok. We are all human and none of us are perfect. Let’s just be kind to ourselves when this happens and begin to be mindful how we can do things differently toward ourselves and others.

The key is to learn to take some steps to calm ourselves down.

Here are a few strategies that might help. I also suggest to make a list of things to do to help you when feeling anger or any kind of stress because sometimes in the throes of that anger or the stress we are experiencing, we are not able to think clearly.  I have a list on my refrigerator or somewhere close to me , I can look at that list and try to implement some changes immediately. 

Here  are a few things:

  1. Take a pause, do some deep breathing, in my next post, I will give a few examples.
  2. Take a walk.
  3. Do stretching, yoga, etc…
  4. Call a friend who has the ability to listen but not give advice.
  5. Play with your pet.
  6. Look at the beautiful smile on your child’s face.
  7. Put something funny on TV. I have a client that whenever she is upset, she puts on Jerry Seinfeld . Yes, they are all reruns and she knows them all but for some reason this calms her down and she begins to smile.
  8. Practice a smile on your face.
  9. Stand up and Breathe, or just even take a few steps, change up what you are doing.
  10. Go outside and look at the clouds.
  11. Occasionally change up your routine. I don’t know about your but I get bored sometimes with the same routine. Meet a different friend, go to a different coffee shop,  allow yourself time to enjoy being with a friend or co-worker and allow time to be with one another.
  12. Close down your screen. I know it’s hard but DO It!  You can do it .
  13. Eat plenty of fruits, veggies, etc. Avoid drinking coffee all day.
  14. Find some time during the day to mediate even if only for 5 minutes or listen to a relaxation or meditation tape.
  15. Write in your journal. You can write if whatever is important to you and don’t worry about grammar, etc.. but when you begin to feel calmer try and think of things you can do differently the next time you are angry or stressed, begin to write something positive but only if it resonates with you. I know it may seem mechanical to try something new and different but the more you do it the more it will help you.
  16. If at work take breaks. Shut down your computer and make sure you eat something healthy. We know that many fast foods and other foods that are not good for us can trigger headaches, stomach problems, etc.
  17. Reduce the noise level in your environment.
  18. We need to learn to speak up about what is affecting us and causing us to be angry. We need to do this though when we are calm. If we are yelling and mean than nobody can hear us.  Yes we can get angry and yet it is how we express our emotion. It is one thing to say we are angry because and describe the situation, it is something else to be yelling and screaming and using our anger in a way that can hurt us and hurt others. Again it is how we express this emotion.
  19. I know if we are angry it is hard to be compassionate towards someone else. I am suggesting that when you have calmed down it is important to be able to have compassion for the other person as well if it is possible.
  20. Look at your stress or this anger you are experiencing as an avenue for growth and change. Think of your problems as potential teachers.
  21. Stay away from watching the news right before you go to bed.
  22. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or to ask for help.
  23. Allow extra time to get to appointments.
  24. Take lots of deep breaths. Do a mini count to 10 when you feel stressed, frustrated, or angry. Take a pause and just BREATHE.
  25. Take a mental health day and be your own best friend and take care of yourself like you would a loving friend of yours.
  26. Practice being patient. I know, I know its hard, especially when I am living in Los Angeles and on the freeway, I have to take deep belly breaths, yet I am aware of my impatience hopefully most of the time and I can relax or listen to a book on tape.
  27. Remember please that we do not all see things the same way or do things in the same way. Understand with compassion that we may have different realities, and this affects how we see the world.
  28. Please learn about practicing mindfulness. There are so many benefits. Learn to being to live in the present moment and be grateful for what we have.
  29. Create new rituals that make you feel good. Open a door for someone, pick up litter, smile at that person in the elevator, say hi to the cashier at the grocery store.
  30. When stressed or upset, ask yourself, “Is this really important?” Will this really matter a year from now ?
  31. Be aware when you are judgmental or critical. Pay attention to the voices you hear. What are they saying?
  32. Breathe before you speak and think about what you say and how it may impact the other person. I know this is hard if you are angry but with practice the more you breathe and take that pause the easier it will become.
  33. Have a good breakfast and optimize your health with good nutrition, sleep, rest and most of all self-compassion.
  34. Remember things are always changing, be flexible. Things don’t always go as we planned.


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