It all happens in a specific region of the brain called the amygdala.
It is known as our threat detector and is responsible to send out an alarm through the brain and our body when it thinks we are in danger, giving us the chance to protect ourselves.
The amygdala coordinates the release of the neurotransmitter catecholamines, which causes a burst of energy. At the same time our fight or flight response is triggered.
This causes our body to be flooded with hormones called adrenaline and noradrenaline. Our heartrate increases, our attention focuses, our breathing gets quicker, and our digestion stops to save energy. Our blood flow increases throughout the body, getting our muscles ready for action. The increased blood flow also reaches our faces, which might get flushed which is why people get “red” with anger. Being in this state means that our body is prepared for a fight.
The high level of arousal makes it difficult for new memories to be formed because our ability to concentrate is significantly decreased - and that is why we often forget what was said during a heated argument.
As a threat detector, the amygdala works so fast that an alarm is send out and we physically begin to react before our prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that helps as with rational decisions) can even recognize that there is a threat. It takes us about 300 milliseconds the be aware of a threat. Our amygdala, however, will react to the same threat in about 20 milliseconds. Our brain is designed to act quickly in case of a threat, but that also means that we don’t really have time to think about the consequences. That is why you might maybe throw something when angry, regardless of what it will hit. The amygdala is overriding or “high jacking” the prefrontal cortex.
Say you’re watching a movie. If it is a scary movie and you hear a noise outside, your amygdala will say, get up and lock the door. Your prefrontal cortex knows there is no ax murderer outside, but you will likely get up and lock the door anyways. Or say you’re watching a sad movie. You know it is a movie and no one died, but you may begin to cry anyways. All these circumstance sets off false alarms, which unleashes the same level of feeling as if the real event were happening. This means that if the brain can’t tell what is dangerous and what isn’t, everything seems like a threat.
The amygdala’s emotional response provides a mechanism to work around the limitation of the prefrontal cortex’s reasoning. For example, the prefrontal cortex will remember what your ex-partner looks like, that petite brunette who dumped you for a new lover. It is the amygdala that is responsible for the surge of fury that floods your body when you see someone who looks even vaguely like your former mate.
And “vaguely” is the operative word here. For when the amygdala tries to judge whether a current situation is hazardous, it compares that situation with your collection of past emotionally charged memories. If any key elements are even vaguely similar, the sound of a voice, the expression on a face, your amygdala instantaneously lets loose its warning sirens and an accompanying emotional explosion.
This means even vague similarities can triggers fear signals in the brain, alerting you of a threat. This false alarm happens because the goal is to survive, there is an advantage to react first and think later.
Why we struggle to calm down
Having a long-lasting hormone in the body can explain why someone has an initial, powerful angry reaction, then seems to calm, but later has a huge flair-up that is disproportionate to the situation because of some small incident occurring while the hormone was active in the bloodstream.
Actively controlling our breathing also activate our parasympathetic nervous system. It decreases our heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and slows breathing.
This post is for informational purposes only. It should not be considered therapy. This blog is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. We are not able to respond to specific questions or comments about personal situations, appropriate diagnosis or treatment, or otherwise provide any clinical opinions. If you think you need immediate assistance, call your local doctor/psychologist or psychiatrist or the SADAG Mental Health Line on 011 234 4837. If necessary, please phone the Suicide Crisis Line on 0800 567 567 or sms 31393.