What is anger doing to your body?

What is anger doing to your body?

When was the last time you got really angry? We all know the feeling. In fact, we all know it so well that anger has been classified as one of the six universal emotions, inherent in every individual. But have you ever really thought about why we get angry and what anger really is?

Anger is often defined as an ‘emotion characterized by antagonism toward someone or something you feel have has deliberately done you wrong’ and can be caused by anything from a barrier to attaining one’s goal, to physical discomfort, to unpleasant feelings such as anxiety, or even just environmental factors such as temperature. It’s amazing we’re not angry all the time.

Let’s look at what happens in the body when we experience anger first?

We all get angered by different things and have various levels of tolerance for frustration, but the physiological reactions are the same for us all. Our blood pressure increases, heart rate quickens, and levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline increase, causing a state of arousal, all in preparation for a response to whatever angered us. In that same moment, our attention is narrowed so we can make quick decisions on how to act to restore this unpleasant situation. In that sense, anger is an adaptive response to threats, inspiring aggressive behaviors to help us fight or flight and restore control over the situation. Although this sounds like a smart mechanism, it can lead to irrational decisions, which might resolve our immediate frustration, but have poor future implications. [Editor’s Note: if you’re worried about “poor future implications” right now, try the SOS meditation.]

So what makes us angry in the first place?

A recent study examined the biggest triggers of anger in everyday life, rating the top five. It turns out, other people are the biggest trigger of anger in today’s society, which does make sense as we are constantly in contact with others and whether we attain our goals or not often depends on other people. The next biggest triggers were psychological and physical distress, interpersonal demands, and environment or unknown/unidentified triggers. As it seems, basically anything and everything around us can provoke feelings of anger within us. Centuries ago, we could afford to be aggressive toward the source of our anger, because more often than not, our life depended on it. Anger aided us when being attacked by predators, or when competing with other humans for prey. And although anger is adaptive from an evolutionary standpoint, our societies have evolved in such a way that it is no longer appropriate to react in this way whenever we feel angry. So, what can we do instead to keep our calm? Well, that’s where meditation comes in.

What can we do about it?

The link between mindfulness and emotion regulation has been examined by many researchers with accumulating evidence showing that mindfulness helps reduce negative affect in both clinical and non-clinical populations in as little as seven weeks of training. Research comparing long-term meditators and demographically similar non-meditators found that mindfulness is related to fewer difficulties in emotion regulation. What’s more, a recent review has concluded that difficulties in emotion regulation subside with higher levels of mindfulness. Through concepts of mindfulness such as non-judgment and openness, we may learn to experience negative feelings without getting emotionally upset by them, which is thought to be the main mechanism behind the well-established link between mindfulness and emotion regulation.  

Anger specific

Research examining mindfulness specifically in relation to anger has found that increases in mindfulness correlate with significant decreases in anger expression, following eight weeks of in-person mindfulness training. A study showed the potential role of mindfulness to alleviate aggression and concluded that more mindful individuals are less likely to interpret ambiguous behavior in a negative way or as reflecting anger and the less aggressive they are likely to be in response to an anger-inducing situation. Mindfulness training has further been found to reduce rumination, thus having an indirect effect on anger, suggesting that mindfulness allows us to notice, but not get swept up in negative emotions, which in turn helps us let go of anger quicker. The existing scientific literature proposes that mindfulness enables us to better understand our emotions and current experiences, resulting in healthier emotion management and expression, without under- or over-engagement in transient states such as anger.

The better we are at understanding our emotions and viewing them as passing states, rather than perceiving them as our reality and getting overwhelmed by them, the easier it is to cope with these emotions in a healthy way. Mindfulness just might be the way to achieve this.

A Day With: Antenatal Depression

A Day With: Antenatal Depression

[Editor’s Note: This piece is part of an ongoing series of personal essays on what it’s like to live with a mental health diagnosis. Each piece describes a singular and unique experience. These essays are not meant to be representative of every diagnosis, but to give us a peek into one person’s mind so we may be more empathetic to all.]

This should be one of the happiest days of my life. I have a baby—another baby—growing inside me. A much-wanted second child, a little sister or brother for our 2-year-old son.

But this is one of the worst days of my life. I’m sitting in my doctor’s office, tears streaming down my face. I feel on edge and exhausted and anxious and desperate and deeply, deeply miserable. “It’s not working,” I tell him. “It’s been six weeks now, and it’s not working.”

“It will work,” he reassured me. “Are you having thoughts of harming yourself?”

“No!” I say without thinking about it because thinking about it would send me over the edge and I’ve been working really hard for six weeks to inch away from it.

The guilt makes it worse. My innocent unborn child, a 10-week-old fetus less than two inches long, did not ask to be born to a mother with mental illness. He or she did not expect to be on the receiving end of SSRIs via the placenta. My doctor has explained the risks of antidepressants during pregnancy, which include miscarriage, heart defects, birth defects affecting the spinal cord and brain, skull, abdominal organs and limbs, preterm (before 37 weeks gestation) birth, low birth weight, and low Apgar scores. It’s also been suggested that babies exposed to antidepressants in the womb may experience withdrawal symptoms such as breathing problems, jitteriness, irritability, low blood sugar, poor tone, and trouble feeding.

My doctor told me that these risks are low (studies show different levels of risk, but the consensus seems to be around one percent greater increase compared to pregnant women not taking antidepressants), but that I needed to consider them before taking the medication. He also told me that untreated depression during pregnancy can have a serious impact on the baby’s health. A woman with depression may be less likely to eat healthily, miss prenatal appointments, smoke, drink, or take drugs. I will not do any of those things. But I already have a child I need to care for, and without medication, I simply don’t believe I can handle everything. I know I’m not ready to deal with my illness without pills, not yet.

I leave the doctor’s office having made a half-hearted promise to return the following week if my mood has not improved. Driving home, I imagine my baby being born with spina bifida, a cleft lip, all manner of heart defects, and the tears keep falling.

Depression sucks, no matter what else you have going on in your life. But depression with a toddler really sucks. I cannot slide back into bed and let the weight of my duvet pin me to the mattress. I have to be responsible for all the needs of a small person who does not understand what it means to be so low that there are simply no words to explain how it feels.

I have time for a cup of tea before I pick my son up from the nursery. I go through the motions. It tastes wrong: metallic. I remember this from previous episodes of mental illness—it’s not a pregnancy thing. Food and drink I once enjoyed become unwanted guests in my mouth. Even my taste buds experience depression.

Read more: The secret battle of high-functioning depression

I sit motionless on the sofa, tea growing cold in my hand, until it is time to leave.

At the nursery, I plaster a big, fake smile on my face and try to make acceptable small talk with the staff while my boy is being bundled into his jacket. He has painted me a picture—three brightly colored blobs which are, he informs me, our family. It will be a while before he knows that a fourth blob is on the way. I coo over his picture and promise to stick it to the wall as soon as we get home.

After lunch, I try to persuade him to nap—I need to close my eyes—but he is full of beans and wants to play. I empty the contents of his toy box on the floor and lie down beside him while he runs tiny cars up and down my legs and across my forehead. Eventually, he snuggles into my arm and we lie together on the floor, reading stories. My voice sounds strange, as if my tongue is too thick for my mouth, but he doesn’t notice. He just needs me there, and if there’s one thing I can do right now, it’s be by his side. His warm little body is the only comfort I can find right now.

I know things will get better. The medication will kick in and the fog will lift and I can start to plan for the new baby. Until then, I crave the darkness of bedtime.

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The “A Day With Mental Health” series is brought to you by Headspace and Bring Change to Mind (BC2M). BC2M is a nonprofit organization built to start the conversation about mental health, and to raise awareness, understanding, and empathy.

These essays will publish weekly on Headspace’s the Orange Dot. Read the rest of the series here.