PTSD & Anger, Part 3: The Physiological Side of Anger

Friday, July 18th, 2014 • PTSD Recovery Tips

Some time ago, a man wrote me how much he enjoys the blog, even though anger is not his problem, even though he’s only depressed. So let’s pause for a moment to remember: Depression is anger turned inward. And since anger can be a positive survival mechanism, let’s not be so quick to dismiss it or want to deny we feel it. Last week’s post made the point that anger can be helpful to survivors, so come with me over the next couple of weeks. Building on the first anger post I’m going someplace we all can go, regardless of how your anger manifests itself.

Today I want to continue the exploration of anger in physiological terms and here’s why: Anger has many physical effects, so if we don’t find a way to deal, diffuse and direct it we’re only adding to the problems we already have. Let’s begin with more from Dr. Harry Mills who writes in his article ‘Physiology of Anger, “Like other emotions, anger is experienced in our bodies as well as in our minds. In fact, there is a complex series of physiological (body) events that occurs as we become angry.”

In her excellent and informative article on the physiology of anger Christina Boerma builds on Mills’ statement with an important reminder when she writes, “Anger hurts the angry person more than the object of its anger.” How does it do that, you ask? Let me count the ways in this partial list of how anger physically manifests:

1 – Muscles that are needed to fight or flee become very tight, causing an “uptight” feeling.

2 – Chemicals known as catecholamines are released causing us to experience a burst of energy (which causes a sugar deficiency, so that an angry person may “shake from anger”).

3 – Heart rate accelerates: Because of our anger, the usual (average) heart rate of 80 climbs to 180 beats per minute.

4 – Blood pressure rises: An average blood pressure of 120 over 80 suddenly soars to 220 over 130, sometimes even higher.

5 – As the body prepares for survival, it safeguards itself against injury and bleeding. Likewise, an angry person’s body releases chemicals to coagulate (clot) the blood, creating a situation that’s potentially dangerous. Although there is no physical injury, the clot is formed, which can travel through the blood vessels to the brain or heart.

6 – Rate of breathing increases to get more oxygen into the body.

7 – Increased blood flow enters our limbs and extremities.

8 – Attention narrows.

9 – Hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline) are released which trigger a lasting state of arousal.

The problem with all of this, as Dr. Mills points out is that:

“If anger has a physiological preparation phase during which our resources are mobilized for a fight, it also has a wind-down phase as well. We start to relax back towards our resting state when the target of our anger is no longer accessible or an immediate threat. However, it is difficult to relax from an angry state. The adrenaline-caused arousal that occurs during anger lasts a very long time (many hours, sometimes days), and lowers our anger threshold, making it easier for us to get angry again later on. Though we do calm down, it takes a very long time for us to return to our resting state. During this slow cool-down period we are more likely to get very angry in response to minor irritations that normally would not bother us…. High levels of arousal (such as are present when we are angry) significantly decrease your ability to concentrate.”

Which means, the naturally hyperaroused, hypervigilant, brain fog state in which we already exist is only exacerbated by anger. We need to consider this. We need to see ourselves. We need to make a change.

Our bodies are already stressed, tensed and on edge any normal day. Why make it worse by not controlling our anger? It is, after all, an emotion that is within our capability to focus, modulate and contain. There are tons of anger management techniques. We can also begin easing anger’s effects by learning simple relaxation techniques. Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be bad for any of us, even when we’re not angry — even when we’re only depressed.

(Photo: Eva8*)

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