This Is Your Brain on Anger

Anger is natural, even necessary, and it can be highly productive if properly channeled

Robert Roy Britt
Elemental
Published in
6 min readJun 9, 2020

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Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

There’s no shortage of anger in America right now. For many people, the roots of it run deep, stretching back lifetimes and beyond. Occasionally, and visibly of late, anger can explode into rage. So what’s going on, biologically and emotionally, in your mind and body when you’re angry?

Anger is a normal human emotion, psychologists say. It’s not inherently good or bad. Responding aggressively to one’s own anger is instinctive and baked into our biology. Suppressing anger is known to accomplish nothing and be bad for your health.

So perhaps now more than ever, it can be helpful to understand where anger comes from, how it affects us, and how anger, when properly channeled, can be a great force for positive change.

Inside the angry brain

Anger can be fueled by distant or immediate threats. It often stems from a sense of injustice, psychologists say, whether on a personal or group level.

Anger and fear both generate a basic stress response, collectively called fight or flight. Anger makes us want to fight, and fear makes us want to flee. The system is evolutionarily set up to keep us alive, to face the threat of an invading tribe or to run from a tiger. But it can be activated by all kinds of things, says neuroscientist Alicia Walf, PhD, a senior lecturer in cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Our response to a threat, whether it’s physically in front of us or rooted in thoughts and emotions, goes like this:

  • What we see and hear and feel goes directly into the brain’s limbic system, starting with the amygdala, a primitive structure that processes emotions, among other functions.
  • If the amygdala perceives a threat, it sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, which serves as a command center for the body’s nervous system.
  • The hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands, which sit atop the kidneys, to release adrenaline, cortisol, and other hormones.
  • The heart beats faster. The breathing rate increases. Airways in the lungs expand, flooding the brain…

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Robert Roy Britt
Elemental

Editor of Aha! and Wise & Well on Medium + the Writer's Guide at writersguide.substack.com. Author of Make Sleep Your Superpower: amazon.com/dp/B0BJBYFQCB