How to Heal the Angry Brain

By Jill Suttie | May 8, 2012 | 5 comments

A new book reveals how understanding the way your brain works can help you control anger and aggression.

When I was a young adult in the 70’s, everyone thought it was important for you to let your anger out and not keep it bottled up inside. Therapists recommended primal screaming and pillow pounding to dissipate anger and prevent patients from turning it inward into depression or outward into violent behavior.

Since then, though, science has shown that these therapies are not helpful, and, in fact, often encourage more anger.

Ronald Potter-Efron, an anger-management expert and author of the new book, Healing the Angry Brain, shows us the reasons why that might be the case, and why people prone to anger should try to manage it rather than letting it all out.

Potter-Efron describes what happens neurologically when we get angry—how the limbic system gets activated, and our body gears up for fight or flight by increasing our heart rate, respiration, and blood flow to muscles, often without our conscious awareness.

However, other centers in the brain—for example, the frontal cortex and hippocampus—are responsible for shutting down the fight or flight response when it is clear that there is no real danger. Their activation can help stop aggression before it gets going and prevent one from saying or doing things one will later regret.

If your fight or flight response is easily activated, though, it’s harder to override. Potter-Efron suggests that we learn to interrupt the anger response before it gets out of hand and find more healthy ways to express anger. Many of his suggestions—e.g. time-outs, deep breathing, and self-talk—can calm down anger in the moment and also allow us to think better before we act. Others, such as general stress reduction and building empathy skills, work better in the long run.

Some people are more prone to anger because of biology or past experience, including early childhood trauma. Yet Potter-Efron insists that anyone can learn to handle anger more effectively with some conscious effort.

So, if you’ve got friends, coworkers, or family members who sometimes fly off the handle at the least provocation, don’t hand them a pillow; instead, hand them this book. Then, perhaps, it would be wise to duck…just in case.

 

Tracker Pixel for Entry
 
 
 

Greater Good wants to know:
Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?

  • Very Likely

  • Likely

  • Unlikely

  • Very Unlikely

  • Not sure

 
About The Author

Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s book review editor and a frequent contributor to the magazine.

  

Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

Donate
 
  
 

Thanks for sharing your story, Lillian. It’s surprising to
me how many people still think that letting out anger
is the best remedy for it, not realizing the harm it does
their bodies and their loved ones. I’m glad you were
able to ignore the source of your gifted journal, and
decided to begin a life of writing…a good therapy for
whatever ails you!

Jill Suttie | 4:26 pm, May 8, 2012 | Link

 

Thank you for your thoughts. I am also been a vicitm of this reaction through out my life I have lived so far .. reaction of anger still explodes unconsciously on and offf in me countlessly leaving a guilt on memory.. no matter the infusion lead to positive or neagtive results.Most of the time negative

since we know it is never beneficial to be in a state of anger..I decided to teach my self the UNDO CONCEPT the quickest reaction when i relaize i am getting out of my way..JUST UNDO..whatever you are supposed to act on OR about to DO . The principle of UNDO worked.

any conversation / negotiation..it iw working i dont know for whatever reason.

kiran | 7:43 am, May 14, 2012 | Link

 

I’m curious about the “undo concept.” Is it a message
you give yourself in the moment to stop yourself from
acting out of anger? If so, your method may be
supported by research that shows when you take time
between feeling an emotion and acting on it, that
space allows you to employ your frontal cortex’s
executive functioning to choose a different behavior.
When we don’t take that space, we are more likely to
act out without consideration of the costs. That’s why
“time outs” and “taking a breath” also help with anger
management. They create the necessary space.
Sounds like you came up with your own useful method.

Jill Suttie | 9:57 am, May 16, 2012 | Link

 

As a clinical psychologist AND a therapy client of over 35 years, I have been around and around this debate. While I do agree that the uncontained expression of anger is often destructive or best not helpful, I would caution against “black-or-white” thinking here, e.g. that anger must always be “managed, and that pillow-punching is nver a good idea. In a therapetic setting, I believe that the EMBODIED and CONTAINED physical expression of anger/aggression can be very , very healing. It is not right for all clients and not right for every occasion, but being able to feel anger in the body and not disassociate from it is very important, and is a skill well worth learning.

Louise Gordon | 4:20 pm, May 29, 2012 | Link

 

It sounds like you are referring to patients who have
trouble accessing their anger, rather than someone
with anger management issues. If so, I would agree
that embodiment of the emotion could help someone
get in touch with buried anger, which then might be
useful in the way you describe.  But, for those with
problem anger, the research seems pretty clear:
letting it out does not help and can actually
exacerbate angry outbursts. I think we are in
agreement here. Thanks for pointing out the nuances
of the argument.

Jill Suttie | 10:34 pm, May 29, 2012 | Link

 
blog comments powered by Disqus
 

Most...

  
  

Greater Good Events

Mindful Self-Compassion: Core Skills Training
International House
December 9-10, 2016


Mindful Self-Compassion: Core Skills Training

This workshop is an introduction to Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC), an empirically-supported training program based on the pioneering research of Kristin Neff and the clinical perspective of Chris Germer.


» ALL EVENTS
 
 

Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!

» TAKE A QUIZ
 

Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.

Watch
 

Greater Good Resources

 
 
» MORE STUDIES
 
 
» MORE ORGS
 

Book of the Week

How Pleasure Works By Paul Bloom Bloom explores a broad range of human pleasures from food to sex to religion to music. Bloom argues that human pleasure is not purely an instinctive, superficial, sensory reaction; it has a hidden depth and complexity.

» READ MORE
 
Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement