How Does Anger Affect the Brain?

by Nancy Wurtzel on March 30, 2016

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Irate people seem to be everywhere these days, on airplanes, in cars, at school, at sporting events, on social media and at political rallies across the country.  It makes me wonder, has anger reached a new high in America?  If so, how is it affecting the human body, and more specifically how does anger affect the brain?

What’s So Bad About Being Mad?

Everyone gets angry — it’s a normal, even useful,  emotion when humans feel threatened, wronged, embarrassed or even frightened.  The response is tied to the body’s fight or flight auto response.

At the first inkling of anger, the brain’s amygdala instantly springs into action, signaling an internal alarm and triggering the adrenal glands to release a blast of  adrenaline, cortisol and testosterone.

Sensing these changes, the body responds by tensing muscles, increasing the heart rate, raising blood pressure and flooding the brain with stress chemicals. Almost simultaneously, there are obvious physical changes.  These changes are easily seen in facial expressions, pupil dilation, stance and even breathing rates. The brain is firmly in a react first, think latter mode.

Amazingly, all of this transpires in a matter of seconds.

Of course, we’ll never escape from anger and in moderation it is helpful.  However, there is a tipping point where anger can cause real damage to the body and the brain.

How Does Anger Affect the Brain?

brain-anger and the brain-cognition-memory-cognitive function-Alzheimer'sAccording to a November 2015 national survey conducted by NBC, Survey Monkey and Esquire magazine, half of all Americans report they are angrier today than they were a year ago.  You can read the survey results here and also learn how your own feelings of anger compare to the survey respondents.

Most people will experience anger by feeling mad or even livid in the short-term.  These individuals can moderate their intense emotions, process their feelings, put them in perspective and then let them go.

In other words: They don’t allow anger to fester and consume their lives.

However, an increasing number of people are unable to let go of anger and are being held hostage by unresolved feelings of rage. If not released, these toxic feelings may become ingrained and eventually affect personal and professional relationships as well as mental and physical health.

Ultimately, the body and the brain will pay a price.

Effects of Strain on the Brain

Scientists are in the very early stages of assessing the brain’s response to long-term anger.  However, there are a handful of interesting research studies about long-term stress, which is closely aligned with anger.

Stress and anger are so intertwined, it is difficult to separate them.  In fact, I see them as coexisting.

With this in mind, I did some digging.

A 2014 study at the University of California, Berkeley identified chronic stress as triggering long-term changes in brain structure and function.  The study focused on the hippocampus, which regulates emotions and memory.

Robert Sanders, University of California at Berkeley outlines the study, “In a series of experiments, Daniela Kaufer, UC Berkeley associate professor of integrative biology, and her colleagues, including graduate students Sundari Chetty and Aaron Freidman, discovered chronic stress generates more myelin-producing cells and fewer neurons than normal. This results in an excess of myelin – and thus, white matter – in some areas of the brain, which disrupts the delicate balance and timing of communication within the brain.”

In the study results, Sanders writes, “Researchers have shown that chronic stress generates long-term changes in the brain that may explain why people suffering chronic stress are prone to mental problems such as anxiety and mood disorders later in life.”

Brain Studies Focus on Chronic Stress

brain-memory-cogntiive function-memory loss-anger-Alzheimer'sAn earlier study, published in 2012, was led by Dr. Rajita Sinha, a professor of psychiatry and neurobiology at Yale University School of Medicine and director of the Yale Stress Center.  This study revealed adverse life events that cause stress — even among healthy individuals — can lead to shrinkage in parts of the brain responsible for regulating emotions and metabolism.

Writing about this study for Time magazine, reporter Alice Park quotes Dr. Sinha, “…people experiencing chronic stress may be more vulnerable to suffering from brain shrinkages in key areas when they are faced with a life trauma or sudden adverse event. That’s because chronic stress may erode parts of the brain gradually, just enough so it’s not perceptible but, enough that when a truly stressful event occurs, its effects are magnified and our ability to cope is compromised”

I always look for a TED Talk when I’m researching a topic.  My short search turned up this excellent short video by Madhumita Murgia who presented a compelling TED-Ed presentation about stress and the brain.  The video is just four minutes and features excellent content and graphics.

Curbing Anger Can Help Your Brain

More research would be helpful, but I learned enough researching for this article.  I’m a 60-year-old-woman who has a history of Alzheimer’s in my family — my parents, grandmothers, plus several aunts and uncles.  I need to do everything I can to keep my brain healthy and thriving.

Reducing my anger and stress is something I can address, and it’s at the top of my agenda.  Read next Wednesday’s post to find out what I’m doing to accomplish it.

*Images from Dollar Photo Club

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