Science Reveals Exactly How Anger Damages the Brain and Body

Dr. Christine Bradstreet

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*all images open source form pixabay.com unless otherwise noted.

Emotions are more than just feelings. They directly affect your physical body by triggering a chemical cascade. So, while anger is an emotion (sometimes to excess), it becomes a physical thing.

Here’s the exact mechanism that takes anger from your brain to your body.

At the first hint of anger, the amygdala part of your brain gets activated. The amygdala is a small, almond shaped portion of the brain and is mostly associated with emotional processes.

The triggering happens faster than you can be aware of it.

The amygdala sets off the stress response system.

The stress response system involves the hypothalamus, the pituitary, and the adrenal glands. (known as the HPA axis)

In short, the hypothalamus is a part of your brain that controls your autonomic nervous system (all the things you do without having to think about them).

The pituitary, among other things, controls and coordinates hormone secreting glands.

Your adrenal glands aren’t part of your brain. They sit on top of your kidneys and they secrete stress hormones along with others.

It’s a near instant chain reaction.

The amygdala signals the hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus signals the pituitary via corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH).
The pituitary signals the adrenal glands via adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH).
Then the adrenal glands release the stress hormones cortisol, adrenalin, and noradrenalin.

Check out this fantastic infographic courtesy of The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM).

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At the right time and in the right amount, we need this stress response system.

The trouble is, many of us are living life in a constant loop of stress and anger.

Even after the anger diminishes, it takes time for the hormones to dissipate in the body. The effects of the hormones last even longer.

Pile on anger after anger after anger, and it’s easy to see how the body can eventually break down as the result.

The physical damage from anger accumulates little by little until eventually you have a full blown problem.

Anger in the body shows up as disease.

  • Headaches and migraines.
  • Increased heart rate, blood pressure, blood glucose, and blood fatty acids.
  • Increased likelihood of stroke and heart attack.
  • Lowered bone density.
  • Slow metabolism (and subsequent obesity).
  • Decreased blood flow to the digestive system.
  • Decreased thyroid function.
  • Vision decline.
  • Weakened immune response.

This is a long, but incomplete, list of all the physical problems that stem from anger. They’re physical problems with an emotional beginning.

This is why most medical interventions have poor results when it comes to chronic and painful conditions.

Most medical interventions are ineffective or short lived because they address the physical problem, but it’s really an emotional problem.

You might be able to find a medicine or a surgery that temporarily puts a patch over the damage, but the stress response system keeps getting triggered.

To really experience healing, you have to get to the root of the problem.

I know this to be true from my education, my career, and my own personal experience. I had recurrent and chronic migraine headaches, severe neck pain, and panic attacks until I healed from anger.

You can heal your life when you heal your anger.

No matter how familiar you are with anger, it isn’t your natural state.

I know it sucks that trauma, unfair events, and disappointments happen in life. They’re going to continue to happen, although possibly fewer of them because you make better decisions when you aren’t angry (more of that coming in part 2).

Staying in the cycle of anger only hurts you over and over again.

Part 2: Anger is Killing Your Brain Cells

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Remember that old television ad, “this is your brain on drugs”? It showed an egg frying in a pan. Well, this is your brain on ager.

Anger is killing your brain cells.

It has to do with the overload on your brain of the stress hormone cortisol.

Anger triggers a release of cortisol, and one of the results of cortisol is an increase in the uptake of calcium ions through the cell membranes of your neurons (aka brain cells).

This increased uptake of calcium ions causes your nerve cells to fire too frequently and can lead to their deaths.

Too much cortisol over time leads to a loss of neurons in the areas of your brain called your prefrontal cortex and your hippocampus.

The prefrontal cortex is a part of your brain, and it’s located in the area of your forehead. It has a variety of complex functions, including planning, and it contributes to personality development.

The hippocampus is the part of your brain that’s thought to be the center of emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system.

Check out this fantastic infographic courtesy of The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM).

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Why does it matter if these areas shrink?

When healthy functioning of the prefrontal cortex is diminished, it inhibits using your best judgment. Can you relate to that? After the anger settles, you wonder why you did or said something. It seemed justified at the time, but in hindsight, you see it was excessive.

In the hippocampus, neuron death from cortisol weakens short term memory. This is why it’s hard to remember all the details of a traumatic event or a fit of anger.

There there’s serotonin, our happy hormone.

Cortisol decreases serotonin, and decreased serotonin makes you feel anger and pain more strongly. It leads to depression.

Thus the cycle continues.

We all have anger.

The question is, how can you stop it from damaging your brain, your body, and your life?

If you recognize that diminishing anger would benefit you and the people around you, congratulations. That’s the first step in healing.

If you feel stuck in a cycle of anger, or if anger is so familiar to you it just seems like it will never go away, reach out for professional help. Keep reading and learning.

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Dr. Christine Bradstreet is a renowned transformation specialist, an inspirational author, and a health and wellness expert. Through her teachings, people learn to create more of what they want in their lives - more health and wellness in their bodies, minds, and spirits. When she's not writing, she offers workshops and lectures, and she works individually with clients to promote healing in their lives. Visit her at www.christinebradstreet.com.

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