Updated: Mar 18, 2022
Welcome back to the emotion series! This five-part series will focus on the seven basic emotions found on the emotion wheel: Sadness, Anger, Happiness, Fear, Disgust, Bad, and Surprised. This series aims to provide helpful information on how to regulate these emotions appropriately. Topics covered will range from identifying emotions to healthy coping mechanisms.
Anger is a feeling that nearly everyone is familiar with; you feel your temperature start to rise, your heart rate may elevate, you may even notice tension throughout your body. So, what’s happening in our bodies when anger begins to bubble up?
The Science Behind Anger
When the feeling of anger arises, a series of responses are set off within the body. Anger activates the sympathetic nervous system, or the part of our nervous system that is responsible for “fight or flight”. The part of our brain that is responsible for sending out signals to our body to respond to a perceived threat, the amygdala, starts to go to work.
Once the amygdala is activated, the brain sends out signals to release chemicals called catecholamines, which are housed in our adrenal glands, and include epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and dopamine. This flood of chemicals cause the burst of energy that you feel when that fight or flight response is happening. This energy also makes you want to take action right now, which is why we tend to act impulsively when we’re angry.
As these stress hormones are coursing through your body, the spike in epinephrine and norepinephrine cause your heart rate to increase along with faster, more intense breathing. As this is happening, your blood pressure is rising as well. Blood flow to your limbs increases to prepare the body to fight, and you may begin to feel hot and flushed. Your muscles will tense up, which may cause you to shake or tremble.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision-making, judgment, and rationality. Typically, this part of our brain is in charge of our emotional responses, but when feeling anger, the amygdala takes control and initiates the series of events previously described. As the hormones begin to dissipate, the prefrontal cortex is fighting to take back that control, and aids in the “comedown” from the anger, helping your heart rate to slow, breathing to return to normal, and body temperature to regulate as you’re able to think more rationally and assess the actual threat level that you’ve been presented with.
The “wind-down” period after an anger response can last several minutes to several hours as the parasympathetic nervous system works to counteract the effects that the sympathetic nervous system had on the body. You may have noticed that at times, after becoming angry, it’s easy to become frustrated or angry again at smaller things for a while after the initial reaction. The hormones that were released remain in the system during this long “wind-down”, which is responsible for those additional outbursts since the body is already primed for fight-or-flight. Eventually, the body is able to restore the balance of the hormones, signaling the end of the anger response.
Wrote by: Melissa Fingado
Mental Health Counselor Intern