Imagine this scenario: Someone cuts you off in traffic. You lay on your horn. You white-knuckle the steering wheel and stare out the window to lock eyes with the culprit. You're angry. Your emotions are heightened and your brain is focused on a singular event.
In moments like these, there are multiple elements at play. Your brain is sending signals that change the way you feel throughout your body. Chemicals are released that play a role in your emotional response. So what chemicals make you angry? Epinephrine and norepinephrine are key substances that are involved your experience.
Anger and Brain Chemistry
When you experience any kind of emotion, your brain releases chemicals. These chemicals or hormones send signals throughout your body to engage and alert your muscles and organs of what you are feeling.
For example, when you're happy, your body might send out a series of neurotransmitters called endorphins. These signals might help your muscles relax, boost your mood, and maybe even bring a smile to your face.
When you become angry, your body goes through a similar process. However, instead of releasing hormones that make you feel joy, they send signals to heighten your senses so that you can confront whatever you are facing. These elements that set your internal alarms ringing are epinephrine and norepinephrine.
Epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, is both a hormone and a neurostransmitter. It helps the body remain balanced by activating the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary processes like heart rate and blood pressure.
When a person encounters a potential danger, such as a car swerving into their lane, epinephrine is released from the adrenal glands. In response, a person often experiences a sudden burst of energy or strength. This hormone is produced in the body when a person experiences fear, anger, or another form of stress.
The human body responds to a rush of epinephrine in a variety of ways, including:
- Elevated breathing rate
- Elevated heart rate
- Increased blood flow to the brain, heart, and skeletal muscles
- Increased blood pressure
- Pupil dilation
All of these physiological reactions are designed to assist the person in reacting to whatever is causing the distress. When adrenaline is released through the body quickly, it's known as an adrenaline rush, and can give people a burst of energy.
Norepinephrine, also known as noradrenaline, is a neurotransmitter in the brain and spinal cord. It is also associated with the fight-or-flight response and causes increased alertness, arousal, and attention. Similarly to epinephrine, it is also a response to a stressor or potential danger.
For example, when you encounter a bear in the woods, your brain flags the event as dangerous. Then, your brain sends a signal down your spinal cord and out to the rest of your body by releasing norepinephrine.
Norepinephrine, along with adrenaline, are released to spread the message that danger is present to every muscle, organ, and tissue. You can think of them as the whistleblowers of the body.
Some additional effects of norepinephrine in the body include:
- Constriction of blood vessels
- Contraction of heart muscles
- Dilation of the lungs
- Increased blood flow to muscles
- Increased blood pressure
- Paling of the skin due to the blood's oxygen supply being redirected to muscles
- Stored glucose in the body is converted into energy
Norepinephrine can give a person the sudden burst of strength or energy that may be needed to defend themselves against any kind of attack. A rogue driver on the freeway might not seem as stressful as a grizzly bear standing in front of you. However, your body reacts in the same way once the fight or flight response is triggered.
Anger Hormones: Epinephrine vs. Norepinephrine
Epinephrine and norepinephrine both have active roles in the fight-or-flight response. However, they are not the same.
Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical substance released through nerve fibers to the rest of the body. Epinephrine is a hormone, a substance that is released into the bloodstream from specific glands in the body. In addition, norepinephrine plays a larger role in the cardiovascular system and is released through sympathetic nerves, while adrenaline is released through by adrenal medulla.
How to Manage Anger and Hormones
You don't have to feel upset or ashamed when you get angry. It's a normal human emotion and your hormones play a role. We've all been there at one point or another. Someone puts a red sock in a white load of laundry or your beloved pet tracks mud across your freshly mopped floor. Your face gets red, your jaw clenches, and you hear a small voice in your head that says, "Hulk smash."
Anger is an emotion that is meant to protect you from lions and house cats alike. People might experience and react to anger in different ways, but it's all part of the human experience. And, to some extent, you can't change the way your brain works. However, if you feel like you become angry more often than you would like, try some management techniques to help to take control of your emotions.