When is Anger the REAL Problem?

When is Anger the Real Problem?

Anger is just another mode of firing neurons triggering the release of hormones. As a feeling, it calls the brain home. When those neurons get going, they ready our bodies for use by switching on many lifesaving body functions.  These lifesavers are helpful in small doses. Most of the time, if there is a problem with anger, it is the way we react to it, not the anger iteself.

When anger gets BIG, or LASTS A LONG TIME, or becomes CHRONIC, these neurotransmitters and hormones become toxins. Over time, these hormones can cause many of the same health and other emotional problems as chronic stress.

Here is a brief rundown about the process from a Harvard Gazette article, The “Angry” Brain.

A look into the brains of normal subjects revealed that anger increases blood flow to a reasoning part of their brains, an area over the left eye just behind the forehead, technically called the orbitofrontal cortex. This flow inhibits thoughts of rage. At the same time, blood flow increased activity in the amygdala, an almond-shaped knot of tissue deep in the brain that deals with emotion and vigilance.

Angry feelings arising in the amygdala are normally cooled by activity in the frontal cortex, part of the thinking region of the brain.

That about describes the process, except that I would take exception to “a lack of both recognition and control of anger, can lead to violent rage.”

Many people do react poorly to anger. That doesn’t mean that anger causes these aggressive, nasty, or hostile reactions. That would be like saying that breakfast causes lunch.

Proximity does not a cause make – in Yoda speak.

We are all still responsible for what we do.

Just because anger and hostility sometimes hang out together doesn’t mean that one causes the other. That’s why managing anger is the long way around.

That doesn’t tell us much about what to do, does it?

If anger does start in the brain, it would seem that the first step in understanding the process would be to have some way to explore, befriend, and influence your own brain.  Si?

That presents another problem. I wrote a post on my other blog, This Old Brain. Net, about a research experiment. This experiment, using fMRI imaging, suggests that decisions we make can normally be predicted approximately six seconds before we make any move to follow through.

That seems daunting. Many people think acting out there anger is something they cannot help.

Many of them, certainly me at a younger point in my life, have sincerely tried many things to “manage their anger.” At best, for some, the success of anger management has been hit and miss (sorry for the unintended pun).

This is where mindfulness comes in.  There are numerous demonstrations now that a mindfulness practice actually grows the prefrontal cortex, described above as the “reasoning part of [the] brain.”

How Does It Work?

When we are under the spell of automatic thinking patterns we are like children with an itch.  We have an itch and we automatically scratch it. And sometimes that works okay.

It’s not like putting our hand on a hot stove, where we learn quickly that this is a bad idea.

What we don’t realize about scratching  an itch (until later) is that sometimes scratching only begets more scratching, and can make things much worse. Ever scratched a mosquito bite until it bled?  Sometimes we have to take a step back and consider that maybe a salve would work better.

Tara Bennett Goleman, Emotional Alchemy: How the Mind Can Heal the Heart, tells us ….

Mindfulness offers us a way to access the gap between intention and action, and to use the power of a veto to break the chain of habits. What ordinarily is an invisible chain of automatic sequences leading us onward through life comes onto the screen of awareness, suddenly giving us a choicepoint where before there was none. We do not have to go along with the impulse to act, we can just say no.

Mindfulness is a practice that gives us a choice.  And it is one of the keys to becoming aware of anger, the stories we buy into that perpetuate it,
and the ability to use the feeling of anger simply as information.

If you have any experience with mindfulness, or with anger, your opinion would be valued in the comment section.

Creative Commons License photo credit: lrargerich

If this is helpful for you, let me know in the comments. You can click the title of the post to get to the comment page if you aren’t there already. Also, sign up below for the newsletter and updates on upcoming courses at AngerFlex, a new way to live with anger without anger living you.

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