The physiology of anger

Speaking of temper…  Here’s a blog post that talks about the physiological impact of anger.

This is pretty important, especially for TBI survivors. Anger and temper flares are very widespread among folks who have experienced head injury — even mild traumatic brain injury — but even so, they are woefully under-researched.

Personally, I feel there’s not nearly enough good information out there for folks to use — both survivors, family members, and the doctors who help them. It’s a problem.

I’m in the process of documenting my own anger/temper issues, talking about how I experience them, and describing ways I’ve found to deal effectively defuse — or at least deflect — the temper flares I have. And believe me, I do have them. Especially after my last TBI.

Sudden, extreme, inexplicable temper flares can be emotionally, socially, and physically debilitating. From the blog post I mentioned above, here are some of the ways anger affects our bodies:

  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.


“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.


The long-term effects of too much uncontrolled anger are in the same ballpark as the effects of long-term unaddressed PTSD, from what I can tell. In both cases, the physical system is dragged down, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year… and what do we have to show for it? Yet more stress.

That being said, I wish I could say I just have PTSD, but my TBI makes it even more difficult for me to parse things through and manage my anger at times. I have to follow specific guidelines to keep myself in check, and I need to keep an eye on myself on a regular basis, lest my anger/temper/freak outs get way out of hand. I’ve lost jobs because of temper flares. And I’ve hurt a lot of people  I care about. Uncontrolled temper flares have done plenty of damage to my heart and the hearts of others. So, I owe it to myself to keep my anger in check.

And I owe it to myself to keep in mind the physical effects that uncontrolled anger has on me. Somehow, my brain finds it easier to wrap itself around objective, non-emotional reasons for staying chilled — like the physiological effects  listed above.

Objective data is one more tool in my toolbox for living well, despite multiple TBIs.

Oct.9.2011 – And here’s one more tool I’ve discovered since I first wrote this: TBI/PTSD anger management by using the breath

Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

4 thoughts on “The physiology of anger”

  1. It has been known for decades that whatever issues we have before our brain injuries will be magnified after our brain injuries. These issues will become problems for us after our brain injuries and why it is important to understand the biology of brain injury because the fight or flight response will also be magnified.
    Actually, controlling stress is of primary importance on this topic and needs to be better understood so that the limbic system fight or flight response isn’t triggered because once the fight or flight response is triggered its consequences have a major impact on how people with brain injuries react to everything we do.
    Stress in our lives is what triggers the fight or flight response and why we get angry and have difficulty processing information and remembering things.
    Source: “Why stress is bad for your brain” (1), Robert M. Sapolsky concludes that glucocorticoid (GC) excess, sometimes a result of sustained stress, is a “likely culprit in causing [hippocampal] atrophy [in humans]. Motor vehicle accident victims who subsequently developed PTSD also showed reduced amounts of cortisol within hours following this trauma, as compared with amounts in such victims who had no subsequent psychiatric disorder or who developed major depression (4).”
    Sapolsky’s groundbreaking work on stress discovered that glucocoritcoids are what triggers the fight or flight response in the limbic system. Once fight or flight is triggered it creates a “cascade effect” – the liver, heart, lungs, adrenaline, muscles are all impacted by this cascade.
    This cascade is also referred by many people with brain injuries as a “meltdown”.
    It is also important to understand how structures within the limbic system operate to fully comprehend the reasons for controlling the stress that triggers the fight or flight response.
    Source Wikipedia: Daniel Goleman speaks about Amygdala hiijacking
    Amygdala hijack is a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.[1] Drawing on the work of Joseph E. LeDoux, Goleman uses the term to describe emotional responses from people which are immediate and overwhelming, and out of measure with the actual stimulus because it has triggered a much more significant emotional threat.[2] From the thalamus, a part of the stimulus goes directly to the amygdala while another part is sent to the neocortex or “thinking brain”. If the amygdala perceives a match to the stimulus, i.e., if the record of experiences in the hippocampus tells the amygdala that it is a fight, flight or freeze situation, then the amygdala triggers the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and hijacks the rational brain. This emotional brain activity processes information milliseconds earlier than the rational brain, so in case of a match, the amygdala acts before any possible direction from the neocortex can be received. If, however, the amygdala does not find any match to the stimulus received with its recorded threatening situations, then it acts according to the directions received from the neo-cortex. When the amygdala perceives a threat, it can lead that person to react irrationally and destructively.[3]
    Goleman states that “[e]motions make us pay attention right now — this is urgent – and gives us an immediate action plan without having to think twice. The emotional component evolved very early: Do I eat it, or does it eat me?” The emotional response “can take over the rest of the brain in a millisecond if threatened.”[4][5] An amygdala hijack exhibits three signs: strong emotional reaction, sudden onset, and post-episode realization if the reaction was inappropriate.[4]
    Goleman later emphasized that “self-control is crucial …when facing someone who is in the throes of an amygdala hijack”[6] so as to avoid a complementary hijacking – whether in work situations, or in private life. Thus for example ‘one key marital competence is for partners to learn to soothe their own distressed feelings…nothing gets resolved positively when husband or wife is in the midst of an emotional hijacking.'[7] The danger is that “when our partner becomes, in effect, our enemy, we are in the grip of an ‘amygdala hijack’ in which our emotional memory, lodged in the limbic center of our brain, rules our reactions without the benefit of logic or reason…which causes our bodies to go into a ‘fight or flight’ response.”[8]


  2. Absolutely – thanks for sharing that. Fight-flight is a major culprit. On the one hand, it can make you feel like everything is clear-cut and straightforward (there is an enemy to combat), and it can make you feel more awake. On the other hand, it totally does a number on us. It’s my belief that misunderstanding the functional need for the effects we get from fight-flight is a major culprit in us getting inadequate mental health care — it’s (mis)interpreted as “self-destructive tendencies” or “an urge for self-harm” when it’s really just the body and the brain trying to get the clarity and energy it needs.

    The problem is, it’s being handled in a very detrimental way – so the mental healthcare folks try to talk us out of getting our needs met, without supplying us with any ideas for alternatives. There are a ton of other ways to get your dopamine up, along with your tonic arousal and clarity. But deliberately, actively seeking them out and working at sustaining them just isn’t pursued — even though that’s a TBI brain desperately needs.

    I hope to remedy this with my work here, but it’s an uphill climb.

    Ah, well… onward!


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