What Happens In Your Brain When You Get Mad, And How To Control It
I’m late for one of my jobs and after noting my empty gas tank and fighting with a broken car door, I pray to a god I don’t believe in to get me through the first traffic light, which is the longest light on the earth. Children have been conceived, born, and taught to read while waiting for it to turn green. I need to breeze through it.
Of course, this means some pinhead not only cuts me off but then pokes along in front of me at 10mph, assuring that we’ll both be sitting at that light until Mars is colonized. My blood pressure escalates while he drifts lazily into the turn lane and I realize, I know that guy! Suddenly he’s not the enemy. He’s just another harried driver, like I am, and I wonder where he’s going instead of how late I might be. Everything gets calmer. The light even turns green.
In a phone interview I tell an abridged version of this story to Joseph Shrand, instructor of psychiatry at Harvard, director of the CASTLE program (Clean and Sober Teens Living Empowered) in Brockton, MA and author of the new book Outsmarting Anger: 7 Strategies for Defusing Our Most Dangerous Emotion. (He’s also Joe from the 1972 PBS kids’ show Zoom, which in itself could make you feel better about whatever was bugging you a minute ago.) He laughs and spots instantly why my brain went from furious to friendly in a matter of seconds.
“They’re part of your group!” Shrand says. That being the case I don’t mind sharing what he describes as the three areas critical to our human sense of survival: residence, resources and relationships. Because the other driver and I have a relationship (we’re friends) and share a residence (our city) I don’t mind sharing my resources with him (the road). Those things are necessary to us, and our brains have evolved strategies over the years for protecting them.
But as our circumstances changed, our brains evolved, so we have a much bigger bag of tricks than we once did to manage a constant influx of new stimuli, some of it truly infuriating. The limbic system, the more primitive part of our brains (though not the most primitive), generator of “fight or flight” might react one way (“Run him off the road!”), while the more developed part, the prefrontal cortex, or PFC, seat of reason, might tally the consequences and react differently (“I’m not going to jail because of that idiot”). These two confer all the time, and in my case, the PFC kept me calm long enough to see the other driver was a friend, which triggered a rush of oxytocin, the chemical of bonding and trust, which makes us want to build relationships, not tear them down —an important element of survival for humans.
“As evolving animals just a few million years ago we weren’t the biggest, we weren’t the fastest, we weren’t the strongest. We were prey! And then we began to form these small social groups and our survival potential increased so dramatically that human beings are now pretty much everywhere on the planet,” Shrand says.
“But to be part of that group you have to have value,” and if you don’t feel valued, you feel vulnerable. The respect we give to others leads us to have value, he says. “Value leads to trust and trust is oxytocin, which binds us together.”
Bottom line: we have a pharmacy between our ears capable of producing a drug that aids in building alliances, if we have the power to nudge it into action in ourselves and in others. It’s a quietly revolutionary idea, especially when a lot of us are used to taking a pill for everything from our sniffles to our temperaments, but one that feels very likely to catch on, especially as our understanding of our own brains and the chemicals they produce increases.
“My background, my training is in psychopharmacology as well as psychotherapy and I use medicines where I really think they’re needed,” Shrand says, “but this is one place where I don’t think we really need a medicine. We can just do this by simply reminding people they are amazing. Treat them with respect, which leads to value, which leads to trust…trust is oxytocin…and you can really unleash your unlimited human potential, the one resource that is completely unlimited.”
Another thing that’s active in our brains are mirror neurons which literally cause us to mirror the feeling of things we see. If we see someone crying, our facial muscles will try to replicate their facial expression, Shrand writes, and we tear up ourselves. Mirror neurons may be why the song “When you’re smiling the whole world smiles with you," makes you smile just hearing it. Among our evolving ancestors seeing an expression of fear or anger might have indicated a predator. Mirroring emotions would help bind the group against the threat.
But our layered brains don’t make us mirror anything thrown at us. We can choose to respond differently and get the other guy to mirror our calm. Shrand writes about a team of Dutch neuroscientists who looked at “intentional versus automatic imitation,” and found “the ability, built in and evolved, of the PFC to override the limbic reaction.”
By using one of his strategies, “projecting peace,” you can “activate a different set of mirror neurons and begin to defuse the other’s anger.” You can get them to mirror your calm instead of you mirroring their anger. A good example is at the beginning of the book where he tells a story of averting a disastrous situation with a psychotic patient who was threatening to hit a nurse with a chair. Shrand walked in and calmly asked the patient if he might like some coffee. By projecting peace, by showing the patient calm and trust, the patient felt calm and trusted. The anger was defused.
“Anger is an emotion designed to change the behavior of someone else,” Shrand says, but there’s a reverse to that: respect is a behavior designed to change the emotion of someone else. Respect is the master key to outsmarting anger.
“When was the last time you got angry with anybody you really believed was treating you with respect?” he asks, and the answer is…you don’t. Someone showing you respect is not threatening your resources, relationships and residence. They’re letting you know you have value and up the oxytocin goes.
Further strategies in this book, like practicing clearer communication and remembering to be empathetic, are surprisingly simple but effective. Shrand’s mnemonic devices and exercises make them easy to recall.
One of my favorite defusing strategies is “Trade Thanks,” because it really puts across how valuable simply saying thank you to someone can make them feel. Think how you feel when you go out of your way to hold a door for someone and they don’t say thank you? Pissed, right? Conversely, think how you feel when they express gratitude? I’ll never forget the editor who sent me a bouquet of roses after I finished a long, arduous story. I thought I had just done my job; she genuinely appreciated that I had and let me know. How can you not work harder and more happily for someone who appreciates you that much?
“In our heart of hearts every human being wants to be valued by another human being,” Shrand says. Not only does remembering that in your interactions and projecting it to others help create calm and potentially avert disaster, it just feels good.
Case in point: as our interview wraps up, I realize I need one last clarification. I feel bad and apologize for keeping Shrand longer than I should. "No, it’s an important clarification,” he says. Then with a smile in his voice. “I’m not angry.”
He could have been exasperated but he responded first with respect, empathy and humor, so instead of an anxious rush of cortisol, I got a rush of oxytocin, which made me feel better and helped me pass the feeling on.
We all have that drug cabinet in our heads. We just have to take a moment sometimes to remember that we’re already holding the keys.