In this blog post we are going to be discussing the physiology of anger and how to process anger in a healthy way. These two points are critical in our development as teenagers and young adults. Discussing physiology is really important when talking about intense emotions like anger because it helps us to understand why we feel a certain way and what choices we have when reacting. Our actions within a moment can negatively impact our lives for years to come. In the moment of anger, you may not feel like you have much control over the situation but in fact, you actually do. The key point here is to remember that we cannot control what others do; we can only control ourselves. If you’ve found yourself in a situation where you have lashed out and physically hurt someone or you have reacted in a way that you aren’t proud of. It is not too late to start cognitive thinking.
Physiology: Pre-Frontal Cortex, Amygdala & Cognitive Thinking
As humans we have the ability to feel an array of different emotions, some good and some not so good. When discussing anger, we need to understand a few things that take place within our brain and bodies. When faced with anger, we can practice cognitive thinking to ultimately strengthen our ability to control our emotions, reduce harm, and reduce future anger outbursts. The ability to think through what we feel, why we feel a certain way and how we can approach negative feelings will help us a great deal in the long run.
The thing that separates humans from other animals is our ability to cognitively process emotions, this is known as the pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex sits at the front of your brain, just above your eyes. Studies have shown that the pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed until about the age of 25, however when we use cognitive thinking this helps us process our emotions in a healthy way.
It’s natural to want to react. Our animalistic brain, known as the amygdala, helps us to identify a threat and how we respond by fight, flight or freeze. The amygdala is located behind the pre-frontal cortex. The tricky part is that sometimes when the amygdala is activated, the pre-frontal cortex can be drowned out by these intense feelings. By practicing cognitive thinking we are communicating within ourselves what we are feeling and what we should do next.
If the amygdala handles emotions, the pre-frontal cortex handles judgement. To really grasp how much control you have over anger, knowing that anger is a secondary emotion to being upset gives you a heap of power. At first it may seem that your anger controls you but you can learn to control your anger through cognitive thinking.
Picture this for instance, you might have had a fight with a friend and wanted to hit them, yell back, or drink alcohol or do drugs. If you’ve ever found yourself in that situation and then you would know how when we negatively process anger through hitting, yelling or taking substances, facing the aftermath of our choices makes the situation a lot worse. You may find yourself charged with assault for hitting someone or destroying property, if you yell back this can hurt someone’s feelings and ruin a relationship or friendship, or if you drink alcohol or do drugs you are ultimately only harming your body and mental health.
Cognitive thinking essentially is taking your power back. You can practice this with any emotion, not only anger. You could be feeling embarrassment, anxiety or fear and use this to help process those emotions. Now, I know what you’re thinking… but how do I remember to do this? Taking a deep breath, focusing on the exhale will help you recenter. You don’t have to practice this while you’re in a hostile situation, you can walk away from a fight and then practice cognitive thinking.
Cognitive Thinking in Practice
Step 1: Notice
You can say to yourself out loud or in your mind, “I feel angry”. You are noticing your emotions. Take some more deep breaths if you’d like, focus on the exhale and count it out.
Step 2: Acknowledge
Again, say out loud or in your mind, “Anger is a secondary emotion to being upset”. You are acknowledging and giving yourself the agency to feel what you need within that moment.
Step 3: Accept
Say out loud or in your mind, “It makes sense I’m angry because…” and then fill in the blank. Ask yourself why are you feeling this anger? Is it because you’ve just heard some upsetting news, maybe someone crossed a boundary with you, you had a fight with your friend, or did something happen to upset you?
Step 4: Act (when required)
This step sometimes isn’t always necessary. Of course, if you are in danger and require police, an ambulance or there is a literal fire in front of you, call for help by ringing 000.
This can also look like taking a walk to de-escalate a situation, practicing meditation, writing in your journal, screaming into a pillow, talking to someone you trust. Or if you feel like you don’t need act on it then that’s okay too!
Step 5: Let Go
This is a huge step to take because sometimes letting go can be hard, but it is vital that you do. Learning to let go is so powerful for your own personal journey. Within anger this can sound like, “There will be things out of my control. I can only control what I say, feel and do.”