Anger is a terribly destructive mindset. When we’re angry, we literally lose our intelligence and thus, naturally, what ensues is stupidity. The good news is that both the reason why we lose our intelligence and how we can avoid anger have been recently revealed by neuroscience. This information is very powerful, easily applicable and will be a great asset in fighting your anger.
First, let’s put aside moronic notions that anger has a positive side to it. People equate anger with energy and the power to change and fight. This is nonsense. Professional soldiers and martial artists are very aware that anger is a dangerous trap, guaranteed to make them operate with far less efficiency. So, even if you’re in the business of killing or defeating people in combat, anger is to be carefully avoided. What to speak then, for the rest of us. If you’re not happy with your government, fighting for rights, hoping for more opportunity, etc. the feeling you want to have is not anger. It’s indignation, determination and courage. Marthin Luther King wasn’t angry, neither was Gandhi, yet they brought about huge change.
Neuroscience has identified which part of your brain does what, and knowing this can help you deal with your negative emotions. There’s a part of your brain called the cortex. It’s that big folded-over gray part on top. Your conscious thinking and planning takes place there. When you reason, you use that part of the brain.
Your brain also has two small almond-shaped parts called the amygdala, your “animal brain.” It can help to see it like that: your rational human brain and your non-rational animal brain. Many animals, including fish, have amygdalas.
Your animal brain helps you survive; it’s your “fight or flight” response. When you are in danger, your amygdala triggers this response, readying you to either fight off danger or run away from it. Actually, there is also a third automatic response: to freeze. Think of a deer facing headlights. So technically, you have a “fight, flight, or freeze” response. In terms of crude wiring, we have our amygdala to thank for fear. In some bizarre cases of damage to the amygdala, a person can become totally (and impractically) fearless.
When you feel your heart rate speed up, blood pressure rise, and adrenaline being released, that’s your amygdala in action, the animal part of your brain getting ready for combat or quick escape. It’s sensing serious danger. That’s great when there is actually serious danger, say a snake, a car rushing towards you, a vicious dog unleashed or a mugger coming towards you from a dark alley. The problem is that the amygdala fires in all-too-common situations such as a presentation to clients, a meeting with your boss, or a talk with your angry teenage daughter. You don’t need an accelerated heart rate, more adrenaline, and more blood pressure for these situations. There is no need for fighting, fleeing, or freezing. So your amygdala is often firing away at the wrong times, for the wrong reasons.
And it gets worse. Your amygdala has the power to override your cortex. You may have experienced this—responded to a threat before you even had the chance to think about it. Again, this is great when there is a life-threatening event and a split-second reaction time can be the difference between life and death. But it’s terrible when what’s triggering your amygdala are run-of-the-mill events in your workplace or home.
Anxiety and anger can get out of control. When you become irrational due to anxiety and anger, it’s your amygdala firing away and overriding your cortex. That’s why it’s useless for someone to try to reason with you when you’re under the influence of strong anger, fear, or anxiety. Your cortex has basically shut off, so they have no one to reason with. In those situations you can’t even reason with yourself. You’ve lost your inteligence.
How do you calm down an amygdala in full swing? Neuroscience shows that two things are especially effective: slow, regular breathing, and relaxing muscles.
You can and should be in full control of your faculties, with balanced heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure at all times outside of the rare event of real physical danger. Breathe and relax your muscles to consciously power down your animal brain. This is the key to overcoming many instances of anger, fear, worry, and anxiety.
Check out my video on this topic for more information.