We all have a right to get angry but not all behavior is acceptable when it comes to expressing our emotions. Outbursts of rage are as harmful as breaking down in the face of adversity. Luckily, with a bit of training it is possible to “control” the brain before it kicks off the chain of chemical reactions leading to anger, or worse.
The effect of giving in to rage is the same as giving in to any impulse like stuffing yourself with cake or drinking to excess. The initial reaction is relief and reduced anxiety. But it doesn’t last long.
“There is an initial reward produced by dopamine [the chemical that transmits feelings of pleasure among many other functions], followed by guilt and frustration,” says Inmaculada Pérez Tamargo, neuropsychologist and director of the Sábilis chain of centers for neural development.
Rage has to be stopped before we reach the point of no return
Exploding with rage is not worth it. “The worst thing about falling into the trap that leads towards anger is not so much the consequences but the fact that we reinforce, at the biochemical and structural level, a type of response which involves neither rational thinking nor the making of objective and analytical decisions,” explains Pérez.
When we get angry we actually “give more power to the limbic system, which makes us more dependent on our most basic feelings and less free to consciously decide how we want to act in future,” Pérez adds.
If we don’t manage to deal with rage we can end up developing the types of aggressive responses typical of violent personalities. Such people have reduced density of the frontal and prefrontal cortexes, according to psychologist Agustín Merino Delgado who specializes in the neuropsychology of violence. This leads to “a reduced capacity to control our impulses,” he explains.
“People who suffer from rage feel unjustly treated, upset, punished and threatened and this can unleash a torrent of reactions which can see people lose control in a very short space of time,” says Pérez.
When we forgive someone, we are freed from a negative emotional change Inmaculada Pérez Tamargo, Psychologist
But there are ways to avoid this negative emotion, as the following four tips show.
1. Identify what is happening
Rage has to be stopped before we reach the point of no return. “If we are already furious we can’t even think about the possibility of stopping because the amygdala [which plays a role in emotional responses] prevents communication with the prefrontal lobe and the message doesn’t get through,” explains Pérez. For this reason you have to learn to listen to your body for signs including increased heart rate and blood pressure and faster breathing.
2. Distract yourself
Any kind of cognitive activity will help here, such as doing a crossword, a Sudoku puzzle, or memorizing a riddle. “Emotionally neutral thoughts calm the amygdala. The only problem is realizing [this is what you need] in time, just before the limbic system invests all of the brain’s energy into preparing the body to confront a threat,” says Pérez. Focusing our attention on an activity we enjoy “activates our neocortex and lets us think about the emotion we are feeling in a more analytical, neutral and objective way,” she adds.
3. Reinterpret the situation
The signs of anger begin in the body and once we have learned to recognize them “we can start to work with the intellect to progressively bring the limbic system back to normal.” From this moment on “we have to analyze the situation that has made us angry and make decisions about what we are going to do, but never before we calm down.”
4. Change your attitude
One way to stop feeling so angry is to force ourselves to put a happy expression on our face. Almost two centuries ago, the psychologist William James said: “I don’t sing because I am happy, I am happy because I can sing.” This was confirmed in a 1988 study where subjects were asked to hold a pencil in their mouth in one of two ways: either between the teeth, which forced them to smile, or using their upper lip, so that the pencil was like a mustache, which gave them an angry expression. Those who had the pencil in their mouth had more intense humor responses to cartoons shown to them than the second group, demonstrating that our facial expressions influence our mood.
So how should we process anger? Before we give in to rage, we should take a moment to put ourselves in the position of the other person. “When we use empathy to reinterpret a situation – along with the technique of forgiving someone – we change an emotion with the help of intellect,” says Pérez. “Forgiveness means exercising self-criticism and empathy at the same time, freeing us from a negative emotional change via introspection, and giving our ego a back seat,” concludes Merino.
English version by George Mills.