Obesely Speaking

The brain and obesity

Anger: The Most Deadly Serpent Lies Within

The 200,000-year-old human health assassin
Billi Gordon, Ph.D.
This post is a response to The Fatter the Body, the Hungrier the Brain by Billi Gordon, Ph.D.

While anger has been with humans since the beginning, most people do not realize where the lion’s share of their anger comes from.

Anger in our Social Journey

Like suffering, anger crosses generations through social memory. Whether it is the Jewish person, whose parents survived the death camps, or the Armenian, whose grandmother survived the holocaust by hiding beneath piles of dead bodies, or the traumatized child of mentally unstable soldier suffering from PTSD, anger persists and extends beyond generations. It also extends to ethnic and social groups. The Jews are still angry with the Nazis, Armenians still enraged with Turks and Black America is furious with White America. The kind of anger that arises from genocidal tsunamis like the world’s holocausts and American slavery does not go away quickly. This type of anger becomes a silent incapacitating emotion. Just because I used America, the Nazis and the Turks as examples, do not think for a minute that there is a guilt free nation on this planet, with the exception of maybe Switzerland and do we really know what makes those holes in that cheese?

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In families, anger passes from generation to generation in the stories that the elders tell the children, like dinner rolls passed around the family’s Thanksgiving table. I remember when I was a child and my father, with rare tears in his eyes, told me how my aunt, whom I never knew, died needlessly when her appendix burst on the way to the “Colored” hospital because they would not treat her at the “White” hospital. The very next day, I went to school and attacked one of my white schoolmates without provocation. Fast forward many years: and my spouse, and the people I love, and who love me most in my life are White. Fortunately, love is a much stronger emotion than anger. However, that anger still lives inside of me, just as the anger from all of the lynching and white on black violence. When I do not eat, drink or drug over it, it comes out in ways that I am neither penitent nor proud.

On the flipside are the children of the Nazis and slave owners, left to pay the bill for something they neither ordered nor received. Hence, White America is angry too, because they did not own slaves and yet Blacks throw it in their faces daily, and people seldom acknowledge their pain. I see it in my husband, whose life has been every bit as painful as mine has. Yet, no one acknowledges his pain, except me. Everybody’s pain is real.

Just as my father told me about racial injustice, my mother told me about gender inequality. If you look closely, you can see the anger and devastation in women’s eyes for the generations of injustice that they have endured. Being a woman in this world is a rough gig. How could they not hate men? Then again, how can you hate your son, father, brother or the man with whom you share your bed? It is like that Facebook relationship status: “it’s complicated.” Again, on the flipside of that is the man, who has done nothing to women, who still has to pick up the bill for the men before him and around him. He is angry too. Just as the man or woman, whose parents told them, this is what Blacks do, this is what Whites do, this is what women do, this is what men do, and this is what gays should never do. He or she is angry because none of that is happening.

 Anger in the land

We all carry a decibel of social anger from our ancestral past. Now add the political anger from the present. What political anger you ask: Congress, Taxes, The Tea Party, Obama, Republicans, Democrats, Gay Marriage, Abortion, Monsanto, Big Drug Companies, Gun Control, The FDA, Corporate Bailouts, Healthcare, Immigration. Do I need to go on? Of course, some of these words evoked anger in you. Just because you are not consciously thinking about these things constantly does not mean they are not affecting your health. Anger is stress, and stress is our health’s most ardent assassin. 

 Anger in the Brain

The brain processes anger as stress, so it is responsible to the pathophysiology of stress, which prepares the individual for the eventuality of fight-or-flight, i.e. elevations in blood pressure, cortisol, serum glucose levels etc. I discuss this in detail in my post Your Mind Does Not Care What Your Brain Thinks. The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is also involved in processing anger. The orbitofrontal cortex, as I discussed in my previous post, Delayed Gratification integrates sensory information from various brain regions in weighing reward/action values, especially in intertemporal choice. The OFC is also involved in combining the sensory information that turns taste into flavor, as I discussed in my previous post, Betrayal of the Tongue. Abnormalities in the OFC cause problems for overeaters in seeking out calorie and fat dense foods. Also, OFC compromises are cited in compulsive gambling, and other addictive behaviors where the greater reward of health and stability are never chosen over the immediate thrill of the vice at hand. Thus, conceivably alterations to the OFC, or to the sensory input it receives, differentiates anger presets, responses, and management styles in people.

 Anger in the Body

Having anger is dangerous to your health. Millions of nerve cells continually release chemicals to every organ in the body. Anger causes sudden surges in stress hormones like adrenaline and noradrenalin, which breach hormone and neurotransmitter communication causing chemical imbalances, which present as disease in the body.

According to cardiology journals explosive anger causes heart attacks and strokes. Anger causes the average heart rate of 80 to accelerate to 180 beats per minute. Studies show it suddenly increases a blood pressure of 120 over 80 to 220 over 130, or higher. In anger, the body releases chemicals to clot the blood. This is a survival trait that anticipates battle wounds. In emotional anger, there is no physical wound and the clot travels to the heart, lung or brain and is often fatal. Anger causes an increase of acid production in the stomach and results in “gastric ulcers.” Anger aggravates Irritable Bowel Syndrome, especially revenge-driven anger. Chronically angry people are more susceptible to colds, flu’s, infections, asthma attacks, skin diseases and arthritis because of the sustained chemical imbalance.

 Personal Anger

Finally, we have our personal anger: what my parents did or did not do, what I have or do not have, how I look or do not look, what my first boy friend or girlfriend did, what should have happened, and what could have happen. News flash, saying something that happened in this world should not have happened is the ultimate conceit. Essentially, you are saying I know better than God. Clearly, none of us know better than the Universe.

 Anger in our ways

Compulsive overeaters eat over anger, alcoholics get drunk, and drug addicts get high. Some people become passive aggressive, some become snarky. Anger makes humans do many things in many ways to the same end—disease, discontent and death. Some people have panic attacks. It depends.

The degree of control you have over your baseline anger will determine how well you are able to manage the daily anger issues in life. The universe gives you social journey, gender, cultural, and personal anger levels. It is just energy. Any condition that can incite dysfunctional behavior can be harnassed and used for something productive, like producing art, or giving service to a  person, situation or cause. Or just sit with it and allow the silence to inform you. Silence is the voice of the soul.

Thus, the take home message is, you may never be punished for having anger, but having anger will always punish you, mind, body and soul. Rather than to let that happen, own anger and make it belong to you instead of vice versa, Remain fabulous and phenomenal.

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Billi Gordon, Ph.D., is  Co-Investigator in the  Ingestive Behaviors & Obesity Program, Center for the Neurobiology of Stress, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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