The Arousal Cycle of Anger

arousal cycle of angerWhether we are experiencing anger, fear, or intense joy, these emotions involve the same physical reaction. After an event of some kind which provokes us, our bodies prepare for action (to fight, to flee, to celebrate). Below is an explanation of each phase that we go through when experiencing anger.

The Trigger Phase:
There is usually an event that triggers or provokes the rest of the arousal cycle; you get into an argument, are threatened, or receive some information that shocks you. You feel threatened (emotionally, mentally, physically) at some level and your physiological systems begin preparing to meet that threat. For example, someone walks into your office and starts banging on a desk and yelling that they need to talk to someone! In this example, the trigger was external but triggers can also be created internally through memory, perception, or stress levels. As your body begins to react to the threatening provocation, you begin to experience the emotion we call anger.

The Escalation Phase:
During the Escalation Phase, the body’s arousal systems prepare for a crisis. The body prepares to attack or defend itself by pumping adrenaline into the blood stream. The results include:
– increased respiration i.e. rapid breathing
– increased heart rate and raised blood pressure
– the muscles tense for action (e.g. jaw, neck, shoulders and hands)
– the voice pitch alters and the volume gets louder
– the eyes change shape e.g. pupils enlarge, steely look, brow falls

The Crisis Phase:
In this phase people’s survival instincts can be observed in a survival response. The body has prepared itself and a physiological command is issued, “Take Action”! Unfortunately, people’s quality of judgment has been significantly reduced at this point and decisions are not made with our best reasoning ability. People in the crisis phase are highly volatile and need to be addressed in simple, direct and non-provoking statements. If you recognize you are getting close to this point, if at all possible, you should seek distance from the situation as soon as possible.

The Recovery Phase:
Once some action has been taken to resolve the crisis phase, the body begins to recover from the extreme stress and expenditure of energy. However, the adrenaline does not leave the blood stream all at once, so the level of arousal tapers off until normal limits are reached. Quality of judgment returns to the normal levels as reasoning begins to replace the survival response.

The Post-Crisis Depression Phase:
After normal physiological levels are reached, the body enters a short period in which the heart rate slips below normal so the body can regain its balance (homeostasis). During this phase, awareness and energy return to the brain (prefrontal cortex) to allow the person to assess what just occurred. This assessment can lead to feelings of guilt, regret, and emotional depression.

The Goal:
The goal of self-management in anger is to recognize the mental and intensely physical experiences of your own anger to the degree that you can more readily choose the constructive course of action. In this case, constructive action refers to anything (e.g. behavior, mental discipline etc.) which enables you to avoid making poor or destructive decisions while in the crisis phase.

Shocked guy photo available from Shutterstock

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Shared by: Aaron Karmin, LCPC, Contributing Blogger

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