The science of anger.

How does this primal emotion override our normal thought processes?

As far as we know, anger is one of the oldest and most primitive forms of emotion. It is believed to have been hard-wired in our brains many thousands of years ago, to help us survive tougher times. Back then, resources like food, potential mates and shelter were relatively scarce. Anger was, therefore, a vital emotion giving our ancestors the necessary drive and power to survive when their safety, or a chance to mate, was threatened.

Although our lives are less frequently in danger than our ancestors’, our brains still react to certain anger triggers, one of which is being treated unfairly. As soon as someone shouts at you or gives you an angry look, the amygdala in your brain sounds the alarm, prompting the release of two key hormones – adrenaline and testosterone – which prime the body for physical aggression. As well as the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex is also activated by the anger trigger. This part of the brain is responsible for decision-making and reasoning, making sure you don’t react irrationally to the situation.

According to studies, the time between initially getting angry and the more measured response from the prefrontal cortex is less than two seconds. This would explain the popularity of the age-old advice of counting to ten if you feel your blood boiling. It’s widely accepted that men and women feel anger differently. Women are more likely to feel anger slowly build up, which takes time to diffuse, whereas men are more likely to describe the feeling like a fire raging within them that quickly eases. This is thought to be due to men having a larger amygdala than women, and is why a man is statistically more likely to be aggressive than a woman.

Can getting angry be good for you?

Many people view anger as a negative emotion that wastes energy and has no benefits. Yet as with all human emotions, anger has evolved to serve an evolutionary purpose. Having said this, getting angry will only have a positive effect if it is used in the correct way. If we sit down and discuss why someone or something has made us angry, then anger is working in the right way; if we can’t regulate our anger response, it’s unlikely to improve a situation in the long run. Studies have shown that releasing anger in a rational way is actually good for you. On the other hand, storing anger up is known to negatively affect certain people, potentially leading to depression. Constant, chronic anger can lead to high blood pressure and even heart disease in the long term.

For more science and technology articles, pick up the latest copy of How It Works from all good retailers or from our website now. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works magazine, subscribe today!