An evolutionary approach to anger surges and relief.
Posted May 25, 2017
When an animal feels threatened, it usually retreats. But occasionally, it rushes toward the threat instead of running away. Anger is the impulse to go toward a threat.
Why would an animal do that?
- When it’s cornered and sees no other option.
- When it expects a big gain.
Animals do the cost-benefit analysis. They’re doing it all the time and it’s the job their brains evolved to do. The cost of approaching a threat is high, but an animal notices when the expected benefit is much higher.
Cortisol is the brain chemical that tells an animal it’s in pain or in danger of pain. Cortisol feels bad because that works: it commands the brain’s attention and motivates it to do whatever it takes to make the bad feeling stop. Retreating from the threat is the preferred solution most of the time.
But sometimes a big resource is at stake. Perhaps it’s food, mating opportunity, or a status advance that promises future food and mating opportunity. Sometimes an animal fights for that resource despite the anticipated pain. Fighting is risky in the state of nature because injuries are often fatal when there’s no paramedic to patch you up. The animal brain is skilled at sizing up its adversary. It only attacks when it expects to win, or when there is no possibility of escape.
Testosterone surges when an animal sees a big survival advantage to attacking rather than retreating.
The brain structures that control this neurochemistry are also in you. Your midbrain or limbic system produces anger in a similar way. Of course you have a bigger cortex, so you anticipate consequences with a larger data base of information to draw on. You can restrain your impulse to attack with a bigger prefrontal cortex. But you still have that awful sensation in your veins. What’s a big-brained mammal to do?
It helps to see what provoked your anger from an animal perspective. This is easier said than done because your limbic system cannot process language. It cannot tell you in words why it turned on the rage chemicals. So you explain your anger with the verbal part of your brain, and it’s often wrong. It’s often just making up an explanation that makes you feel better in the moment, but leaves you stuck in a loop in the long run. You explain your anger with old neural pathways that you could update.
For example, you may think you’re angry because someone has cornered you and you have no other option. But you overlook the fact that you’ve seen a resource at stake and you’ve sized up your adversary and your limbic system has decided that you can win. You don’t intend to physically attack them. You are not even getting mad intentionally. But your testosterone spigot got turned on because anger helped you get your way in a similar past situation, which wired your brain to expect it to work today.
The animal brain only responds to threats that it can see, hear or smell. It does not imagine potential future threats the way the human brain can. We humans can activate threat signals internally without relying on external inputs. This ability has helped us survive by imagining the winter cold in time to stockpile wood in the summer. But it can also leave us with a lot of anger.
You can enjoy a big relief by reminding yourself that your threatened feelings were produced by your internal abstractor rather than a real external threat. But the anger will return, so you have to do it again and again. You can train your brain to accept your anger as a natural survival urge rather than evidence of immediate threat. Your body will metabolize and excrete the testosterone and cortisol in a couple of hours. For that time, stay away from things that provoke you or you’ll end up in a bad loop.
Lots more information on this in my book The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns By Changing Your Brain Chemistry and in my latest podcast on Recovery Unscripted .
Find plenty of free resources on managing your mammalian brain chemistry at the Inner Mammal Institute .