Saturday, November 18, 2017

Biology of Anger

We all get angry at times. But some of us get angry often and what is worse, we do not seem to be able to control it. We lash out verbally and sometimes physically at objects and people around us. Can we do something about our anger or is it something over which we have no control?

Let us seek to understand the evolutionary basis of anger and what happens inside our brains when we are angry. Anger is usually provoked by a threat; either real or perceived. Our ancestors had to react (and react immediately) to survive; or to protect themselves or their resources. To take time to think would be to lose valuable time. So the brain evolved a mechanism for immediate action.

An almond-shaped area of grey matter deep within our brains - the amygdala perceives threat and generates the emotions of anger and fear. It raises an alarm, and kick-starts the body responses which we collectively know as “arousal”. Our heart beats faster to pump blood to our muscles, the muscles tense for action, breathing becomes faster and shallower, voice becomes shriller. Our face assumes the expression of anger (clenched jaw, lowered brows) as a warning to the adversary; much in the same way that a dog growls and bares its teeth when threatened. All this happens in a matter of seconds.

The frontal cortex, (the part of our brains responsible for conscious decisions) is by now aware of these bodily reactions and the threat perception. It evaluates the situation and the social context. Based on past memory, learning and our individual experience, it decides to respond in a particular way.

So what we have here is an immediate emotional response, and a later conscious response. An example will make things clearer.
  • Imagine yourself at a crowded mall. Someone pushes you and moves on un-heeding. You will naturally be annoyed, your face will mirror your displeasure. You are aroused and vigilant - your muscles tense, you breathe faster. This is the immediate response. You realise though after a minute or so that it was probably accidental and think no more about it.
  • On the other hand, you may remember that a friend had his wallet stolen in the same way, you may remember reading media reports about pick-pocketing, and you may be having a substantial amount of money in your wallet. Your reactions will be stronger. You may yell at the person, or may even push him in turn. Your conscious mind from past learning and in the present situation causes you to respond differently.
Our emotions; (anger, fear etc) are innate; but our response styles are mostly learnt. We may have seen the same kind of behaviour in our parents (our first role models) in childhood. Or aggression may be our reaction to abuse or bullying. Or we may have observed that anger is the best way to get what we want. Genes, gender (males are known to be more physically aggressive when angry), and our own personality traits also contribute.

Since emotional arousal occurs involuntarily, you may well ask “How can I have any control over my anger?” You can control the behavioural manifestations of anger.
  1. Firstly, recognise the signs of anger and arousal. 
  2. Then learn to consciously control these processes. Breathe slowly, lower your voice, relax your muscles, stop frowning. 
Does it help? Yes! When we consciously speak slowly and lower our voices, when we relax our tense muscles, when we wipe the frown on our faces and replace it with a smile, we influence activity of the emotional regions of the brain. fMRI scans show less activation in the amygdala. The arousal process is reversed. This is the science behind and the biological basis of anger management. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy further seeks to modify your perceptions – may be what made you angry in the first place, what you perceived to be a threat; was not so at all?