The Anatomy of Anger

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Day 39 :: my own worst enemyAnyone can become angry—that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way—this is not easy.” –Aristotle.

The February 29th issue of the Inter-County Leader reported the story of Ryan Waalen who, in a fit of rage and jealousy, broke into the home of his estranged wife, ripped a TV from the wall, threw a computer monitor, damaged furniture, slashed her tires and beat her while she held their 11-month old son.

In his statement Waalen said he just, “lost it.”

“Anyone can become angry—that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way—this is not easy.” –Aristotle.

Sadly, this isn’t all that uncommon. At home, work, and school—people are “losing it” all the time. Most often it doesn’t make headlines. Still, to the spouse left shaking with rage, or a child left to muddle through another school day awash in the buzz of a morning argument—that’s no consolation.

Clearly, we all want to control our tempers. So why is this often so difficult?

Let’s start by taking a look at the root of all passion—an almond shaped bundle of cells just above the brain stem called the amygdala. The amygdala acts as storehouse (and a tripwire) of emotional memory (and energy). Without it, we are stripped of the vibrant emotion that makes us human. Empathy, compassion, rage, love? Gone.

The problem is that the neocortex–the part of the brain responsible for rational thought (we’ll call it, “Sherlock Holmes”)–evolved after the center for emotion (lets call that part of the brain, “Drama Queen”). The result is that a relatively small and unthinking part of your brain, given the job of painting events with emotion, has also been given the keys to all of the rest of it. In other words, Drama Queen, through her vast array of neural connections, can, during emotional emergencies, completely hijack Sherlock Holmes.

Don’t get me wrong. Passion has its place. But during periods of high stress, whom would you rather have driving the bus: Lindsey Lohan or Sherlock Holmes?

Can we manage our emotional lives with intelligence? Is it possible to rein in Lohan and give the keys back to Holmes?

We’d better hope so. Beyond the obvious pain and expense these emotional outbursts cause, a stimulated amygdala also impairs our ability to process information efficiently. Beyond that, anger (like a virus) has an interesting way of spreading to others–disrupting productivity and efficiency at work and school—long after a social interaction takes place.

So, if anger is a virus, how do we build immunity?

According to University of Alabama psychologist, Dolf Zillmann, anger is often triggered by a perceived threat to one’s self esteem or dignity. This trigger releases a cocktail of chemicals and hormones that not only prepares one for immediate action, but also stimulate the body and mind to an excited state of “readiness” lasting hours after a threat is detected.

This explains why someone who’s had a stressful day at work is especially vulnerable to becoming enraged by an unrelated stressor hours later.

The key to controlling our anger lies in our awareness of both the trigger and physical reaction. Realizing that a perceived threat is just that—a perception—is the first step. As Shakespeare poetically put it, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

The ability to observe the resulting surge of energy is the next step. According to Zillmann, the trigger (perception) is only the first step in “a sequence of provocations,” each resulting in a fresh wave of energy and hormonal momentum built on top of the one that came before it. By internally observing any step of the anger response, and allowing it to pass, we break the cycle of escalation and calm down.

Increasing self-awareness increases self-control. Now we are ready to accept Aristotle’s challenge and choose when to use a controlled anger—and its waves of resulting energy—to our benefit.

Homepage image credit:  Mindaugas Danys via Compfight


  1. Excellent article Chris. I work with younger children and see lots of behavior coming straight from the amygdala. We just have to keep in mind not to respond to this drama with more drama.

    • Thanks Seth!
      And I absolutely agree. Don’t add to the drama. I work with middle school kids. I love to point out to them when they get into the drama. I like to think it’s raising their self-awareness. I remember early in my teaching career when I myself would feel that rush of adrenaline when the drama hit. It takes some work to overcome sometimes.

  2. Such important information presented in an accessible way ~ great site!