How To Fix Your Angry Brain

By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

“What’s wrong with my brain?” Michael asked.  A high level manager with a great career, Michael feared his anger outbursts at work might cost him his job.  “Why can’t I just put up with crap and not react?” he wondered.  Michael learned what happened to his brain and body when he became angry.  When we get mad the brain responds in a lop-sided  way, with the left front of the brain more active than the right side of the brain.  Other changes include increased heart rate and physical tension.  Testosterone levels increase and the stress chemical cortisol actually DECREASES during early anger.  Intense anger damages the arteries while long term anger increases the stress chemical cortisol.  If we keep dosing our brains and bodies with cortisol it can cause premature aging and structural changes in the brain.

When flight attendant, Steven Slater, went ballistic this week, many cheered his angry rant.  Slater, apparently fed up with an uncooperative passenger, cursed over the loud speaker, grabbed two beers, deployed an emergency slide, and fled.  Arrested later while having sex at his home, (probably due to that raised testosterone level), Slater became an instant celebrity.  Fans started at least two Facebook pages in his honor.  One has over 143,000 fans at this posting.  Comedian Jimmy Fallon wrote a song called “The Ballad of Steven Slater” with a refrain suggesting we “get two beers and jump.”   Anyone who serves the public faces hostility, cruelty, threats, assault and other outrageous behavior.  Sometimes it’s fun to imagine retaliating, walking away, with your head held high.

I’m sure Steven Slater has already been interviewed for a new reality show called “Take This Job and Shove It.”  Before we celebrate his histrionics lets think about the effects of this brash act on others:

  • Fellow flight attendants had to finish the flight without his help, waste their valuable time answering questions, and manage the problem passenger he left behind.
  • Ground crew members were put in danger when he deployed the slide with 3000 pounds of pressure.  They were also inconvenienced and had extra work to replace the slide and maneuver around it to get passengers out.
  • The airline supervisors had to investigate, prepare reports, deal with law enforcement, and determine  personnel needs.
  • Friends and family of Slater might feel worried and/or burdened by his pending legal and financial troubles.

While Slater might be enjoying his fifteen minutes of fame and felonies his brain most likely was simmering a stew of toxic chemicals for far longer.  Excessive anger and stress increase adrenaline and cortisol.  This increases blood sugar and risk of insulin resistance and can lead to diabetes and heart disease (John Arden, Ph.D.)  .  Over time the natural killer cells of your immune system become depleted, leaving you more prone to a host of illnesses.   As if getting physically sick wasn’t bad enough, chronic anger leads to shrinkage of the hippocampus damaging memory and narrowing attention.

You can repair your angry brain with:

  • Exercise:  If you exercise 2 to 3 times a week you will feel less depressed, angry, stressed and cynical.  Your brain gets more oxygen and nutrients to repair the damage caused by stress.
  • Sleep:  Those who get enough sleep get angry less,  and have more patience and resilience.  Avoid computers and TV’s before bed if you have trouble falling asleep.  The light from the screens fools your brain into thinking it’s daylight, and you don’t produce enough melatonin to get you drowsy.
  • Eat:  Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast.  Eat a vegetable or fruit, a complex carbohydrate (like whole wheat bread), and a protein at every meal.  Eat something nutritious every 4 hours.  This keeps your mood stable, and fuels your brain to stay in control.
  • Love:  Socialize and connect with people you enjoy.  Loving and caring about others helps the brain grow and repair itself.  A healthy social life reduces stress, releases hormones that produce a feeling of serenity, and increases our resilience.

Say you stay up late watching Steven Slater’s Fan base grow, skip breakfast, race to work honking at slow moving traffic, consume caffeine and sugar, race home and pick up fast food, while ignoring your friend’s text because you’re too tired and hungry to talk….STOP.  Don’t “get two beers and jump.”  Instead, exercise, sleep, eat and love.  Your brain will love you back.