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This Is Your Brain on Frustration: Conquering the Annoyance

With some neurochemistry jiu-jitsu, you can flip frustration on its head.

Key points

  • Frustration is a natural emotional response that can have significant consequences if left unchecked.
  • Avoiding frustration can be the best approach in many situations.
  • Coping strategies can help mitigate its impact and maintain a healthier mindset throughout our lives. 
Alexander Dummer/Pexels
Source: Alexander Dummer/Pexels

Frustration is an emotion that we all experience at some point, whether it's on the job, at school, or sparring with a loved one. The reaction is a natural response to obstacles, setbacks, or situations that prevent us from achieving our goals or fulfilling our needs. While the causes of frustration are sometimes unavoidable, prolonged or intense frustration can have significant psychological and physiological impact on our overall well-being. Figuring out what happens in the brain when we get frustrated is the first step toward determining which strategies can be used to manage this troubling emotion.

Frustration can arise from various sources. For instance, unrealistic deadlines, unclear expectations, lack of resources, or interpersonal conflicts can all contribute to feeling frustrated. When these obstacles hinder our ability to complete tasks or achieve desired outcomes, malaise can set in, potentially impacting our productivity, focus, and overall mental health. In simple terms, being frustrated promotes feelings of ineffectiveness, apathy, and a potential sense of loss because we feel that we may lack the capacity to change an anxiety-provoking situation.

Psychological and physiological consequences

When we experience frustration, our brain initiates a complex cascade of neurological and physiological responses. The amygdala, the brain's emotional processing center, becomes activated, triggering the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline (Denson et al., 2009). These hormones prepare our body for a "fight-or-flight" response, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. Moving into action, the pituitary gland releases opioid neurotransmitters designed to produce feelings of pleasure and well-being to counteract the stress. Dopamine is released, particularly in the nucleus accumbens, to reduce frustration by promoting feelings of satisfaction and motivation to overcome challenges. Serotonin is produced to avoid aggression and impulsivity, which can exacerbate the frustration. Your brain strives to avoid the consequences of frustration at all costs and as such takes decisive action to return you to a calmer state.

However, prolonged frustration can lead to a state of chronic stress, which has been linked to various negative psychological and physical outcomes. Psychologically, frustration can contribute to anxiety, depression, irritability, and decreased self-esteem (Brinker & Dozois, 2009). Physiologically, chronic stress can weaken the immune system, increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases, and contribute to conditions like headaches, digestive issues, and sleep disturbances (McEwen, 2008). Thus, action is necessary to prevent a short-term annoyance from becoming long-term stress.

Strategies to avoid frustration

Avoiding frustration can be the best approach in many situations. If we don’t put ourselves in a position to be frustrated, then the probability of well-being is vastly improved. Thus, forethought about what situations may trigger frustration is the first step to managing the emotion. However, some situations are unavoidable and sometimes we may not be able to anticipate potential obstacles to our satisfaction. When frustration is natural and inevitable, there are strategies that can help us manage and mitigate the impact:

1. Cognitive reappraisal: This technique involves reframing the situation in a more positive or constructive light. By shifting our perspective, we can reduce the intensity of frustration and approach challenges with a more balanced mindset (Troy et al., 2018). For example, consider that working with an annoying colleague is a great experience for future leadership opportunities, and learning how to deal with the frustration can help in other more meaningful relationships.

2. Stress management techniques: Practices like deep breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation can help regulate the physiological responses associated with frustration (Grossman et al., 2004). Remember, the brain’s reaction to frustration is similar to a flight response to an adverse event. Activating the parasympathetic nervous system calms us down and is a key remedy for abatement.

3. Goal-setting and time management: Setting realistic goals and effective time management can help prevent frustration by ensuring that our expectations align with our capabilities and resources (Locke & Latham, 2006). Knowing what we want to achieve in a situation helps reduce the impact of frustration. Take control and determine what goals you want to accomplish when engaging with any potential interaction, then focus on goal-directed progress, despite the obstacles. Your brain will generate dopamine when you reach goals or do better than you expected.

4. Communication and problem-solving: Open and effective communication can help resolve misunderstandings or conflicts that may contribute to frustration. Additionally, developing problem-solving skills can equip us with the tools to navigate obstacles more effectively (D'Zurilla & Nezu, 2010). Look at the situation from the other person’s perspective. They are likely frustrated too, and discussing the emotion helps mitigate the challenge for everyone.

5. Self-care and support systems: Engaging in self-care activities, such as exercise, hobbies, or socializing, can help reduce stress and frustration levels while activating calming neurotransmitters in your brain. Additionally, seeking support from friends, family, or professional counselors can provide valuable perspectives and coping strategies (El-Ghoroury, et al., 2012). Frustration is a subjective reaction to environmental events and can be consciously avoided. How we respond is influenced by using the coping strategies in our toolbox.

In conclusion, frustration is a natural emotional response that can have significant psychological and physiological consequences if left unchecked. By understanding the brain's response to frustration and implementing effective coping strategies, we can mitigate its impact and maintain a healthier, more productive mindset throughout our lives.


Brinker, J. K., & Dozois, D. J. (2009). Ruminative thought style and depressed mood. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(1), 1-19.

Denson, T. F., Pedersen, W. C., Ronquillo, J., & Nandy, A. S. (2009). The angry brain: Neural correlates of anger, angry rumination, and aggressive personality. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 21(4), 734-744.

D'Zurilla, T. J., & Nezu, A. M. (2010). Problem-solving therapy. In K. S. Dobson (Ed.), Handbook of cognitive-behavioral therapies (pp. 197-225). Guilford Press.

El-Ghoroury, N. H., Galper, D. I., Sawaqdeh, A., & Bufka, L. F. (2012). Stress, coping, and barriers to wellness among psychology graduate students. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 6(2), 122-134.

Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57(1), 35-43.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (2006). New directions in goal-setting theory. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(5), 265-268.

McEwen, B. S. (2008). Central effects of stress hormones in health and disease: Understanding the protective and damaging effects of stress and stress mediators. European Journal of Pharmacology, 583(2-3), 174-185.

Troy, A. S., Shallcross, A. J., Brunner, A., Friedman, R., & Jones, M. C. (2018). Cognitive reappraisal and acceptance: Effects on emotion, physiology, and perceived cognitive costs. Emotion, 18(1), 58-74.

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