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How Anger Keeps Us From Thinking Clearly and What You Can Do

When emotions are strong, our thinking can go offline.

Key points

  • Anger leads us to act before we think, and when under its influence, the activity in our brain changes.
  • Stress is a contributing factor to anger that inhibits the activity in the thinking part of the brain.
  • Regulating our anger requires using skills that bring the thinking part of the brain back online.
Source: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay
Source: Gerd Altmann / Pixabay

Anger is a normal, natural human emotion. In many situations, it's a healthy and appropriate emotional reaction. Everyone gets angry at times.

While the emotion of anger is part of being human, it becomes problematic when its expression is so frequent, intense, or out-of-proportion to the situation that there are negative effects on one's life. Depending on how and how often people express their anger, it can damage relationships with family, friends, and partners or at their jobs—creating conflict, estrangement, anxiety, and fear.

Most of us know someone whose anger seems to be on a "hair-trigger," igniting easily, quickly, and ferociously.

But even when people don't demonstrate intense anger outwardly, they can nonetheless experience powerful internal effects that make it extremely difficult to respond skillfully when they get angry.

Why Anger Generates Strong Reactions

Usually, anger has a context embedded in personal experience. Anger arises when we feel unfairly or unjustly treated, diminished, exposed, devalued, coerced, scared, or powerless—whether in connection with present-moment experience or triggered based on something from our past. Anger defends these unpleasant and vulnerable emotional states, providing a sense of power and control—at least temporarily.

Intense, out-of-proportion anger can also represent a response to past trauma.

Operating under the influence of intense anger (or other highly-charged emotions) is not unlike being under the influence of alcohol or other drugs—it can be a form of impairment that deteriorates people's decision-making, judgment, and ability to think intentionally and rationally.

The Brain With Anger

Anger leads us to act before we think, and when we are under its influence, the activity in our brain changes. The emotional part of the brain goes into hyperdrive while the thinking part of the brain becomes less active, effectively going offline.

Two areas in the emotional part of the brain can activate too much when we are angry:

  • the amygdala, which encodes the emotional quality (positive/safe or negative/threat) and intensity of our experiences; and
  • the insula maps how our body feels during situations, including what we know as "gut feelings."

The degree of activity in the amygdala and the insula is controlled, in part, by two areas in the thinking part of the brain:

  • the orbitofrontal cortex, which helps us consider and assess the potential consequences of our behaviors and
  • the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which helps us empathize with others.

The more active the thinking part of our brain is, the greater our ability to consider our behaviors in advance, including how they might affect others—and the more consciously we can guide our choices and actions.

Stress is a common contributing factor to anger. Stress levels correlate with how much norepinephrine is released in the brain. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter needed for everyday thinking tasks.

It activates the above two thinking parts of the brain and allows us to think in focused and flexible ways.

However, as stress increases, so do norepinephrine levels. When norepinephrine is excessive, it stops activating those thinking parts of the brain[1] and instead starts activating the emotional parts of the brain.[2]

By dampening the ventromedial prefrontal cortex activity, stress inhibits the capacity to feel connected with others. People often become stuck in emotion-driven interpretations of events and are rapidly propelled into fight-or-flight mode, which limits our ability to respond flexibly and intentionally.[3]

Once anger subsides, norepinephrine levels decrease, and our brain's thinking part returns online. Our ability to empathize returns, frequently evoking remorse and guilt over our unskillful behavior and the damage it may have done.

Strategies for Regulating Anger

Regulating our anger requires bringing the thinking part of our brain back online, and there are several ways to accomplish this.

  • Pause—take a few moments to establish a mental-emotional space where your thinking ability can be recovered. Step away from the interaction or situation to give yourself time to consider how you want to respond consciously.
  • Practice identifying and allowing yourself to feel the underlying emotions that anger may be superimposed upon—such as hurt or fear. Strive to be present with and accept these feelings and the vulnerability they elicit.
  • As difficult as it may be, try to identify how you may have contributed to the situation that you are angry about. Be aware that people (including you) frequently play a part in the circumstances that brought about their anger.
  • Learn and practice self-calming skills that improve overall emotional regulation, such as meditation and other mindfulness practices, progressive relaxation, yoga, Qi Gong, and intentional breathing.

Intentional breathing can take multiple forms. Breathing is an involuntary bodily function that we can significantly influence voluntarily. We can deliberately alter the rate and quality of our breathing to change the activity in our nervous system.

Stress and highly charged emotions—including anger—can lead to rapid, shallow breaths that feed into and exacerbate distress.[4]

Practice deepening and slowing your breathing—taking long, deep in-breaths and full, complete out-breaths (timing each to a specific count can help maintain a rhythm and sense of stillness). Such controlled breathing can limit respiratory rate, decrease fight-or-flight reactions, improve mood, lower cortisol (the primary stress hormone) levels, and facilitate greater calm.[5]

Learning and practicing the skills of being more consciously aware of our anger as it arises, observing it, being present with it, and making peace with it gives us the ability to respond to and express it intentionally rather than react to it unconsciously, automatically, and reflexively in ways that create suffering for us, as well as those closest to us.

Copyright 2023 Dan Mager, MSW


[1] Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 17 April 2023
Volume 17 - 2023 |

2] Stephen Maren, The Threatened Brain, Science 317,1043-1044(2007). DOI:10.1126/science.1147797

[3] Teed AR, Feinstein JS, Puhl M, et al. Association of Generalized Anxiety Disorder With Autonomic Hypersensitivity and Blunted Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Activity During Peripheral Adrenergic Stimulation: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. 2022;79(4):323–332. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.4225

[4] Pierre Philippot , Gaëtane Chapelle & Sylvie Blairy (2002) Respiratory feedback in the generation of emotion,Cognition and Emotion, 16:5, 605-627, DOI: 10.1080/02699930143000392

[5] Perciavalle, V., Blandini, M., Fecarotta, P. et al. The role of deep breathing on stress. Neurol Sci 38, 451–458 (2017).

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