angry woman screaming
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The Angry Brain

Intense reactions are about more than just being mad
Written by 
Canyon Ranch Staff
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 
Updated on: 
August 18, 2014

I’m so upset I can’t think straight. We’ve all been there—when you’re so angry about something that it consumes you, sometimes causing an unexpected (and perhaps dramatic) reaction. Later you might wonder, Why am I so upset about this? or Why did I lash out like that? If you’re lost on a concrete answer, you may be surprised by what is likely at the root of it all—your memory.

Your incredible brain stores more experiences than you realize. This allows you to benefit from what’s known as your implicit memory: Your brain calls upon what it has learned in the past to guide your actions in the present without you even being aware of the connection. This makes life a lot easier; it’s what helps you get dressed in the morning and commute to work without much thought, for example. But this memory bank stores not only what you’ve already done or has happened to you, but how you felt in those moments. So, just as starting up your car automatically brings back knowledge of how to drive, finding yourself in a familiar and upsetting situation can quickly call up all the feelings you had the first time around—whether that was yesterday or years ago.

This is your brain’s alarm system—made up of your brain stem and limbic region—at work. When you are in a situation that is undesirable, your brain responds negatively to tell you to escape it.

Why It Can Be Difficult to Override

Many implicit memories are formed as early as the first 18 months of your life. The more something is repeated, the stronger the neural pattern connecting that situation with the emotions you are feeling at the time becomes. Eventually, this can wire your brain to associate any future experiences that may be similar with that same emotional state. For example, if a man’s parents repeatedly argued when he was a child, causing him distress, he may become upset when he hears two friends yelling as an adult.  

Compared to your brain’s cortex, which regulates your emotions and responds slowly and with precision, your limbic system favors speed over accuracy—meaning you could have a intense reaction to a situation that may not really warrant one.

How You Can Change Your Reaction

Change is possible, however. To start shifting your reactive behavior—or quieting that alarm—try practicing mindfulness, a technique that brings you into the moment and helps you respond with awareness. The following acronym can be a helpful tool:

  • Stop: Take a break from what you’re doing, even for just a minute.
  • Take a breath: Bring your attention back to the air moving in and out of your lungs.
  • Observe: Notice what’s happening right now—with your thoughts, emotions and body.
  • Proceed: Resume what you were doing, feeling aware and relaxed.

This strategy, or others like meditation and mindful breathing, can anchor you to the present moment and encourage self-observation and awareness. Being fully engaged in the now can help break the behavior that’s driven by memory: You’re focusing your attention, which helps you skillfully respond before your limbic system takes over. It’s important to remember that, as you experience this awareness, you do it with an attitude of open-hearted acceptance—a mindset that can help you feel more compassionate toward yourself and others so you’re able to respond more thoughtfully and constructively to the situation that triggered your anger.

Mindfulness is most successful when practiced with regularity. You’re exercising and actively shaping your brain to think—and react—in a more peaceful way. Make a commitment to yourself and set aside time each day to engage your brain in this way, notice your surroundings and feel present. Use daily activities to practice: Choose something you normally do—like walking with a friend, eating breakfast—and bring your full attention to it. Eventually, your ability to be mindful will come naturally and, as a result, you may be able to handle certain situations with more control.

“Anger is your immediate reaction to a stimulus that you perceive as threatening. Mindfully paying attention to your anger helps you understand how the stimulus triggered your emotion and how best to respond. Mindfully inhabiting the gap between stimulus and response is where your emotional freedom resides.”
Psychology Today