Appliance of science: Why does your heart beat faster when you are annoyed?

THIS question (What happens when in the body when we get angry?) came in from four-year-old Ryan Breslin, from Dublin. He has touched on a really interesting topic with this one — the science of our emotions.

Our feelings, or emotions, are controlled by different parts of our brain. It sends signals to certain parts of the body. When we feel anger these signals can travel to the heart and change the way it is beating.

Different things may trigger our anger, such as a threat, frustration or someone doing something that we don’t like. Often we will feel angry before we even realise what has triggered it. Although it is important to understand our anger, it is an emotion that is created for our own good and protection. It can keep us safe. If someone is threatening us, for example, getting angry may make them stop what they are doing and leave us alone. Or we may get so angry that we walk away, leaving the threat behind.

In our genes

We have inherited anger — it is passed on from one generation to the next. It is coded in our genes, just like the colour of our eyes or how tall we will grow. We can also inherit how easily we get angry or how quickly we calm down.

What happens in the body when we get angry?

The emotion of anger begins in a part of the brain called the amygdala and results in the release of chemicals (hormones) called adrenaline and noradrenaline.

These hormones act on different parts of the body, but particularly the heart. They cause a rise in our blood pressure and an increase in our heart rate. Our hearts beat faster to pump blood more quickly to certain parts of the body, like the muscles, so that we are ready to act, if we need to.

How do we control our anger?

Our bodies usually react to anger without us even knowing, it is under our unconscious control. However, once anger has been triggered we can decide, consciously, whether we act on it or not. We use a part of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex to decide whether to act on our anger or to try to calm down.

Anger is usually a short-lived emotion and once we begin to calm down our heart rate drops back to normal levels again.

There are many things we can do to control anger and prevent us from acting on it; we can walk away from whatever, or whoever, has annoyed us. We can try to change our breathing rate, taking in long slow breaths to slow our heart rate and calm us down. Some people use meditation or exercise to reduce anger.

Did you know that animals can change our emotions too? There are a number of studies that look at how dogs in particular, affect our emotions. Petting or stroking a dog can lower our heart rate — great if we are feeling angry and trying to calm down. A recent study even showed that when a dog and its owner are reunited, both their heart rates drop at the same time.

Whatever it is that makes you angry it is good to know that the feeling doesn’t last long and that you have control over whether you act on the feeling or not and how quickly you calm down.

Naomi is a science communicator and mother. If your child has a question email drhowsciencewows@gmail.com


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