What happens in your brain when you get angry?

Brains are excellent at getting you ready to protect yourself from whatever it is that’s made you angry. The problem is that an angry brain isn’t always the smartest brain. Just because it’s telling you to respond a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s the best idea.

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Your brain tries to make you strong, fast and powerful – kind of like a superhero – but anger can cause people to make really dumb decisions. When you’re angry, your intelligence drops by about 30 percent, so you’ve got awesome speed and strength, but your brain won’t be thinking so clearly. That’s a dangerous combination. If you don’t get a hold of your brain and set it on the right track again, you could end up being more of a villain than a superhero.

Everyone gets angry from time to time. The difference is that heroes are thinkers and they don’t hurt people. The not-so-heroic make silly decisions and even if they don’t mean to, they hurt people along the way.

Which part of your brain is in charge?

There’s a simple difference between the two and it’s about which part of the brain is in charge. Here’s how to make sure you’ve got the right part working for you. Try this – make a fist so your fingers are curled over your thumb. Now, as explained by neuropsychiatrist, Dr Dan Siegel, imagine that this fist is your brain.

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Higher brain

At the top are the higher parts of the brain that help you think clearly. (In your real brain, it’s just behind your forehead.) This part of the brain is responsible for reasoning, using all the information you have to make good decisions, your creativity, and your intuition (listening to your heart and that little voice inside you that tends to know what’s best for you).

Lower brain

Then there’s the lower part of your brain. This part helps to control the physical processes that keep you alive – breathing, blood pressure, seeing, hearing, tasting, listening, and sleeping. It’s also responsible for instinctive behaviour, which is when you respond to things automatically, super quickly and without really thinking. Instinctive responses keep you safe. If there’s, say, a lion coming at you, you could be in a bit of trouble if you had to take time to think about whether or not you should get out of the way.

The bottom part of the brain responds to things without a lot of thought. It’s automatic, instinctive and impulsive. It’s great when there’s real danger, but not so great when situations need more thought and consideration – which is most of the time. This is why you need the higher brain to be in charge. When it’s involved in behaviour, you can be reasonable, flexible and thoughtful. You’ll still do everything you need to do to keep yourself alive, but you’ll do these things sensibly and when you actually need to.

What happens when you get angry?

When you get angry, the lower brain takes over. It gets so activated that it floods the higher brain and stops it from working. Without your thinking, sensible higher brain, your lower brain can get up to some crazy stuff.

Remember your closed fist? Start to open it (but keep your thumb where it is). See how the top part of your brain (pretend it’s your fingers) becomes disconnected from the bottom part? This is what happens when you get angry. Of course, your real brain doesn’t come apart.

But what does happen is that the higher brain no longer has control of your lower brain, which becomes free to do whatever it wants. This is when things can get a bit ugly. You might yell, scream and feel like you want to break people or things. Until you bring your higher brain back to the control deck, the lower brain will be doing all sorts of things that could land you in trouble.

Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to reconnect your sensible, creative higher brain to your lower brain. Read on here – How to be the boss of your brain when you’re angry.

hey-warriorHey Warrior by Karen Young

Kids can do amazing things with the right information! Understanding why anxiety feels the way it does and where the physical symptoms come from is a powerful step in turning anxiety around. Anxiety explained, kids empowered. Purchase Karen’s book here.


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About Author

Karen Young

As a psychologist Karen has worked in private practice and educational and organisational settings. She has an Honours degree in Psychology and a Masters in Gestalt Therapy. Karen is the founder of Hey Sigmund (heysigmund.com), the website dedicated to bringing the science of psychology to the art of being human. She has two children and two stepchildren and lives in Australia. She can be found on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram.

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