Seeing Red: How to keep anger from hijacking your brain

Wednesday, March 29, 2017 @ 11:34 AM

Fuming. Seething. Steaming. Powerful language to describe an equally powerful emotion. Anger is a natural reaction to perceived threats, stress or injustice, but can feel overwhelming. Here’s what’s technically happening behind the scenes when you get mad: The amygdala sounds an alarm triggering the adrenal glands to release catecholamines dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline through the veins of your body. When adrenaline reaches your heart, it beats faster and more vigorously, causing blood to be pumped 3 times as fast, preparing you for action. You begin breathing faster, your stomach tightens and your muscles begin feeling tense.

So, how do we keep anger from hijacking our brains?

Anger is not inherently good or bad. It's designed to protect us and others from harm. It also has some benefits, like increasing our confidence and decisiveness as well as motivating ourselves and others to act. Anger becomes a problem if it is felt too intensely or frequently as it has damaging effects on your health. Chronic anger changes the structure of your brain, leading to greater reactivity and perpetuating the anger experience. Anger is also problematic if it is expressed ineffectively as it can hurt others, damage the quality of relationships and lead to losing friends, loved ones and jobs. Reacting in anger can also put you and others at risk of physical harm and leave you feeling remorse and shame.

So, how do we keep anger from hijacking our brains?

Perhaps you already know you have a problem with anger. You say you’ll change, but when push comes to shove, you fall back into the same trap. You’re not alone. Anger is a powerful emotion you don’t want to underestimate, so let’s face it, you’re going to need a plan. The steps below will help you create an individualized plan for disrupting anger before it costs you. I’d recommend detailing your plan in a note on your phone so its readily available. Before you get started creating your plan, define the problem you want to overcome and your intended goal. Then you’ll be able to measure the effectiveness of your plan. For instance,

“Problem: I yell at my kids and wife when I get mad.
Goal: Speak to my family in a calm, respectful tone, even when I feel angry".

Step 1: Know your triggers
A trigger is any stimulus that leads to intense emotion or problematic behaviors. Triggers vary from person to person and are often based on your values and personal history. Imagine carrying a weapon and not knowing what sets it off. That could be dangerous, right? The same is true with emotions. If you want to react well when you get mad, you will need to become aware of what sets you off. Knowing your triggers increases your ability to prepare to cope when these events occur.

Figuring out your triggers may not come naturally to you, but there is a trick: keep an anger log. After you lose your cool, note the date, time, what was going on around you, things people said/did, thoughts you had, emotions you felt and physiological sensations before you got mad (headaches, etc). After tracking these for a couple of weeks, you will begin to notice some common themes. These are your triggers. I’ll post some common triggers soon to give you some clues on what to look for.

Step 2: Acknowledge that you are angry in the moment

Regaining control once you're infuriated is a formidable task. However, most people don’t actually become enraged instantly. Typically our anger escalates gradually, but many people aren’t aware of their mild to moderate emotion. Being unaware of mild to moderate emotions puts you at risk for losing control. Work to notice the physiological signs of anger before its at its peak. Spend some time slowing down when you are angry to label your emotion and notice what it feels like. Observe the changes in your body, the increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, sweaty palms, tension in fists, etc. Scientific research demonstrates that naming your emotion can shift your brain into a more rational state and that mindful awareness of emotion increases our emotional control.

Step 3: Use effective strategies for reducing your anger level
When you are angry, you can take steps to feel calm again. Once you notice a trigger feeling of anger, it's important to make time to practice using techniques that keep anger at a manageable level. The angrier you are, the harder it will be to effectively use these skills in the moment so try practicing when you are only mildly annoyed, gradually using the skills at a higher levels of anger. The primary goal is to bring the physiological arousal down, which is typically best accomplished through relaxation strategies, such as deep breathing. Deep breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing means breathing in slowly and deeply through your nose, filling up your diaphragm (muscle between your chest and abdomen) for about 10 seconds and then slowly releasing the air out through your mouth for another 10 seconds. (Note: Avoid using any mood-altering substances that might cause you more problems in the future.)

Step 4: Evaluate & Revise Your Plan
After trying out your plan, evaluate how effective it was at reaching your intended goal. You may be tempted to skip this step, but it’s crucial for measuring what actually works and what doesn’t. If it worked, note what worked. If it didn’t work, try to diagnose what went wrong. Did you stick to your plan, following each of the steps? Do you need more time to practice using the skill? Use your evaluations to revise your plan. Keep working the plan and revising until you have a solid plan that works!

Anger can be very complex and this plan may not fully address all of the underlying causes of your anger. If your anger is upsetting or costing you significantly, counseling can help you overcome it. Anger is very treatable. Call Amanda Berge to discuss treatment options. (224) 633-3319