The Physiology of Anger and how to control it

by Apr 15, 20153Plus, Skill building, Wellness, Your coach says…

7966303_lDo you ever find yourself getting angry when confronted with difficult situations and automatically going into “attack mode” – against your own better judgment?  Afterwards, do you regret what you’ve  said or done?

So here you can understand what is going on in your brain that causes you to react in this way and how you can change your behaviour. Ideally we would all like to be able to deal with conflicts in a peaceful and constructive manner.

How does this happen?

In order to understand this, we need to look at how our brain is structured. Simplified, there are three parts to the brain:

  1. The oldest and most primitive part is the brain stem, governing our instincts and basic physical functions. It is this part of our brain that notices potential dangers and reacts with a fight or flight reaction. It reacts very quickly. If our autonomic nervous system is activated by this fight/flight reaction, it dominates all other reactions of the body.
  2. The second part of the brain, the limbic system, has to do with our emotions. It registers pleasure or displeasure through emotions such as joy, sadness, fear and anger. It is responsible for our emotional well-being. It influences for a large part our breathing, heart rhythm, blood pressure, hormone system, digestion and immune system.
  3. The third and youngest part of our brain is the neo-cortex. With the neo-cortex we are able to think, solve problems, and plan ahead. It works together closely with the limbic system. It recognizes and names emotions: this is joy, this is disappointment, this is anger.

Hot buttons and rash behaviour

If we react purely from the limbic system we can act rashly, without thinking. Our neo-cortex helps us to predict the consequences of our actions and to make a conscious choice about our reaction to a certain situation. The limbic system can tell us what feels pleasurable or not, and our neo-cortex can make plans to facilitate the occurrence of desirable experiences.

hot buttonOur brain has evolved tremendously over millions of years, yet the priorities of evolution remain – survival is the key priority.  When there is a threat of danger, an alarm goes off in our body. The limbic system reacts in such a way that the link with the neo-cortex diminishes and the link with the brain stem becomes dominant.

[Tweet “With strong emotional stress our instincts take over and our neo-cortex loses control.”]

We can no longer think clearly, and before we know it, we are attacking with judgments, accusations, reproaches and abuse – or we can even black out.  This is due to the presence of strong emotional memories. The limbic system stores these memories of how we felt in certain situations in the past. When a situation arises that seems to mimic a situation stored in our memory, we experience the same painful emotion, and react in the same way as in the past.

[Tweet “Our emotions send signals from the brain to the body. “]

Fight or flight

This happens via the autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic part of this system prepares us for movement and activity (fight or flight). The parasympathetic part helps us to relax and repair.brain4

Both parts of the autonomic nervous system keep our body in balance. However, if we often experience the same emotion, such as anger, frustration, irritability, or if we experience very strong emotions, the activity of the sympathetic nervous system increases and the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system decreases.

The increase in activity of the sympathetic nervous system negatively influences our physical well-being: our heart rate increases and/or becomes erratic, we feel that we are always on the alert and expecting trouble, and our diaphragm tenses up.

This is a simple explanation of what happens in the brain and how, through the autonomic nervous system, it influences our body.

 4 steps to stop yourself reacting purely emotionally without thinking

Step 1. Develop awareness

When you get angry, try to be aware of what is happening inside of you – not just to name the emotion, but to really experience physically what is happening in your body. Can you feel that the chest area gets harder, and that your midriff tenses up? Do you feel that your breathing is becoming more shallow? And that your lips are tightening, your eyes are widening?

All signs that you are getting ready for the attack… So, what can you do when this happens?

 Experience the changes in your body, especially in the heart area and the diaphragm. It takes time to practice this. Very often we develop habits and we react in the same way every time we feel stressed. We don’t think, we just continuously fall into the same habits. The time-lapse between what happens inside the brain and our external reaction is very small. This means that we don’t have much time to stop ourselves and to think about what is happening.

white zen stonesYet we can do it.  It just takes time to practice!  Keep trying every time you feel anxious to stop and examine how this feeling is manifesting in your body.  If you fail to do this the first time you try, just keep at it. The more you attempt to do this the better you will get at it – your brain will begin to receive the message that it can change the way it functions, and will become more adept at this with practice.

Step 2: Pay attention to breathing

 When you are able to experience what is happening inside your body, the next step is to simply pay attention to your breathing.  If there is tension in the heart area and the diaphragm, your breathing will be affected.

 Feel the movement of your breathing. By stopping to pay attention to your breathing, the diaphragm will relax, which in turn can be enough to relax your mind and to stop yourself from reacting rashly.

If you are in a situation where you can take more time, you can do a breathing exercise: breathe in for four counts and out for eight. After you do this for a few minutes you will feel that your thoughts are slowing down and that things are relaxing in your body.

You may not necessarily be able to do this on the first attempt, and sometimes it will be more successful than others.  In some situations it will be easier to accomplish this, and in others more difficult. This often depends on how strong the emotional memories are that become triggered by certain situations.

 Step 3: Exercise

What is also extremely beneficial is the practice of a system of exercises such as taiji, qigong, yoga, and meditation. These practices help you to become aware of your body in all situations; how you react, where you experience tension, which emotion affects you in what areas of the body.

In Taijiwuxigong, the system of exercises that I teach, there are various exercises to help us to develop awareness of the body. We learn to observe the body, not to judge it, but to simply to be aware of it. These exercises also help to create more space within the body so that we can move more freely and breathe more deeply.[Tweet ” They make the body more relaxed and help to lessen the impact of emotional memories”]. They help to relax the diaphragm and the heart area.

Step 4: Feel joy and gratitude




A last tip is to practice feeling joy and gratitude – you can do this in all situations, and especially when you are feeling angry or upset. The more you practice this, the more benefit you will attain, as it is a powerful tool in helping us to change our learned emotional and physical cycles of action and reaction.

Think of a specific moment in your life when you have felt joy, appreciation and gratitude, and keep this image in your mind. Experience the change in your body. Or you can also use the following image: picture a fish that has become stuck in a net, and that you are able to free it. The feeling you have the moment you see the fish swimming away is experienced in your heart.  Experience how this relaxes your diaphragm, your head, the neck and your face.  This deliberate action of allowing the most evolved part of our brain, the neo-cortex, to consciously choose how it engages the limbic system is the key to our happiness and well-being.

 Additional reading

Dr Steve Peters, The Chimp Paradox.

Mark Bowden, Tame the Primitive Brain.

Regine Herbig, books in Dutch: Constructief omgaan met irritatie en boosheid, and German: Konstruktiv umgehen mit Irritation und Arger.

Sofie-Ann Bracke Contributor
Sofie-Ann Bracke is a body coach with a mission to help people develop a better awareness of body language and posture, and to improve their physical, emotional and mental well-being.
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