How to Manage the Angry Brain

The fourth communication taboo to avoid is uncontrolled anger.  Anger can range from mild irritation to out of control rage.

When anger is managed well, it can provide a healthy release, a motivator for change, or a self-empowering strategy.  Anger also is a protectant from underlying feelings of pain, fear, guilt, or shame.  It is a normal, human response and an indicator of pain and promoter of change.

When anger reaches an elevated state, the pre-frontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain is hijacked by the amygdala, the emotional, instinctual part of the brain that induces the fight, flight, or freeze response.  New information can no longer be received and defenses rise, demands persist, criticism overtakes, or vented venom leads to violence. It is at times when anger reaches an uncontrolled state of mind that a deliberate plan of action must take place.

What is uncontrolled anger?

Uncontrolled anger is an unrestrained fuel of fire with raised voices, yells of derogatory names, and can lead to physical violence; i.e. throwing dishes, shaking of your partner viciously, pushing, and beating.  If an interaction has reached this point, stop, take a deep breath, walk away, and reconvene when you have calmed down.  It’s important for the mutual interest of a committed relationship to talk in a normal tone all the while staying away from criticizing, demanding, and defensiveness.

What happens when the brain is angry?

An angry brain is overtaken by the limbic system.  The limbic system located in the lower part of the brain ignites the amygdala, a small structure that stores all emotional memories. The amygdala decides if the new information coming in warrants the fight-flight-freeze response or should continue on to the pre-frontal cortex. The depending factor is whether the new data triggers enough of an emotional charge or not.

When the pre-frontal cortex is hijacked by the amygdala, the stress hormone cortisol is released.  The process can last several minutes to several days but on average continues for  20 minutes.

When too much cortisol is freed, cells in the hippocampus short-circuit.  The misfiring of neurons stops new information from being received and makes it difficult to organize and obtain the full memory of the triggered event.

Emotional and physical responses also occur during anger.  The heart beats faster, the lungs hyperventilate, blood pressure rises, and nerve endings on the skin spring into action causing sweating and the hair on your body to stand tall.  Since the pre-frontal cortex is overridden by the amygdala, all thinking, assessing, or problem-solving skills come to a halt. Thus it is important to learn techniques to manage extreme anger.

Seven tips to cope with anger:

1.    Take a time-out and signal your need for a break to your partner
2.    Get physical — go for a walk, take several deep breaths, find an activity that gets your body moving.  Bodily activities release soothing endorphins to help calm the brain
3.    Notice and observe your thoughts – name your anger, externalize it and reframe your negative story with positive narratives
4. Expand your awareness to bodily sensations while paying attention to where anger resides in your body
5.   Learn acceptance tools — you are not your anger and this feeling is temporary.  This too shall pass.
6.    When you are calm, share your insights and experience of the event that triggered your anger.  Social support is essential for calming and letting go of anger
7.  Seek a professional if you are having difficulty managing anger on your own

While expressing your anger peacefully, use “I” statements and remember to stay within the confines of the rules of no criticizing, no demanding, no defending, and no vented anger.

If your communication is falling into the trap of uncontrolled anger, call me at (424) 258-5416 or email me at april@aprilwrighttherapy.com and let’s build a personal plan to manage your anger and build trust and intimacy again.

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