Biological Responses to Anger

In the comments of my post about fear, Dale suggested I write about anger, another powerful emotion with a physical response within the body. We associate anger as a negative emotion. If well-managed, anger can motivate us to make positive changes. The same holds true for our characters.

Most emotions begin inside two almond-shaped structures in our brains called the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for identifying threats to our well-being, and for sending out an alarm when threats are identified.

It’s so efficient at warning us that it can cause us to react before we’re able to confirm whether our response is warranted. Thought and judgment stem from the prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead), which tends to lag behind the amygdala.

In other words, our brains are wired to influence us to act before we can consider the consequences of our actions. This is not an excuse for behaving badly—people can and do control their anger. Rather, it means managing anger is a skill, not something we instinctually know how to do.

Case in point: Teenagers. 😉

Fun fact: The human brain takes twenty-six years to fully develop. This should help you stay sane when kids lash out or talk gibberish. They’re not working with a full deck yet!

What happens within the body when we’re angry?

Like fear, anger triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response. The adrenal glands flood the body with stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. The brain shunts blood away from the gut and toward the muscles to prepare for physical exertion.

This results in:

  • Faster heart rate
  • Rising blood pressure
  • Breathing increases and/or shallows
  • Rising body temperature
  • Increase of perspiration

Meanwhile, the sympathetic nervous system — a division of the nervous system responsible for the fight-or-flight response — nudges the adrenal gland, encouraging it to release epinephrine (aka adrenaline), noradrenaline, and other energy hormones.

When we’re angry our muscles tense. Inside the brain, neurotransmitter chemicals known as catecholamines are released, causing a burst of energy that can last several minutes to hours. This burst of energy explains why our first reaction is to take immediate action.

In addition to the above list, the face flushes as increased blood flow enters the extremities to prepare for physical action. Attention narrows and locks onto the source of rage or innocent target, if misplaced. Additional neurotransmitters and hormones release, which trigger a lasting state of arousal.

The body is now ready to fight.

Quick story to illustrate anger.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m a chilled person by nature. My blood pressure rarely, if ever, rises above 110/60. It’s tough to get me angry because I do not allow others to control my emotions. There’re only two ways to push my buttons—abuse of animals or children. If you tick one of those boxes, look out. I’m coming for you.

Now, I’ll tell you the story. 🙂

A few weeks ago, I’m editing Merciless Mayhem at my desk, when four husky guys huddled around the side of the road, bordered by woods.

Huh. That’s odd. Why are they here?

I get back to work but keep the strangers in my peripheral.

One of the guys jumps forward and kicks something on the ground.

What the—? Now they’ve got my full attention.

Over and over, this dude kicks. Laughs with his buddies. Kicks again. Another guy squats. When he rises, he has two hooves gripped in one hand, holding a dead deer by the legs while his buddy kicks and punches the carcass.

Unable to trust to my eyes, I jolt to my feet. All four guys find it hilarious to beat a young deer who lost its life.

Heat envelopes me from the inside out. My face flushes. Blood pressure spikes, and I careen out the door. “Hey!”

They stop, turn. The kicker said, “What?”

“Stop abusing that animal!”

“What’s the big deal, lady? It’s dead.”

“Oh, I see.” In seconds, I shorten the distance between us. “So, when you die, I can kick the sh*t outta your corpse? Leave now, or I’m gonna make that happen a lot sooner than you think.”

All four booked it to their SUV, parked around the corner.

Two hours later, my husband strolls through the door after work. “Hey, honey. Have a good day?”

Boom. All the same biological/physiological responses flood my system, and I’m reliving the incident while I recount the story.

“How many guys?” he said.


“And that didn’t give you pause?” He asked because I’m only 5’ 1.5” Doesn’t matter. It’s the fire that burns inside you, and mine was blazing hot.

“No. Why, should it?”

“Honey, they were probably hunters—with guns.”


“You could’ve been shot.”


“You could’ve been killed.”

“Oh, well. I will never allow anyone to abuse an animal, dead or alive, in front of me. I don’t care who they are.”

See how easily anger can spiral out of control? Hours after the incident, it didn’t take much to trigger me again.

Tips to Show Anger

Anger can build over time or occur in a split-second. If I were writing the above story in a novel, I’d slow it down. Show in detail the motivation that sparked rage in the MC. Drag out an inferno building inside the MC before she snaps.

Body cues include:

  • Flared nostrils
  • Sweating
  • Head up, chin and chest out, shoulders back
  • Audible breath
  • Flexed muscles
  • Vein or artery pulsing, thinning the skin
  • A fighter’s stance
  • Cold stare and all its variants
  • Face reddening (If the POV character is angry, they can’t see the color of their face)
  • Tightness of the eyes, chest, lips, etc.
  • Punching, kicking, throwing things
  • Teeth or jaw grinding
  • Hurtful words, sarcasm, swearing
  • Heart thundering
  • Muscles quivering against the surge of adrenaline
  • Irrationality
  • Jumping to the wrong conclusion 

Trigger the Senses

Using my story as the example…

Did tree limbs obscure my view? (sight)

Did each kick boomerang across the road? (sound)

Did the metallic sweetness of blood assault the back of my throat? (taste) Or was the carcass rotting? (smell)

When I booked it across the street, did the cold asphalt sting my bare feet? (touch)

We already know hearing is impaired by biological changes. How does the impairment affect the MC? Do muffled sound waves heighten other senses? Or is the MC always a hothead?

Prolonged Effects of Anger

  • Headaches
  • Lower immune system
  • Digestive problems
  • Heart disease
  • Depression
  • Tingling sensation—muscle tension
  • Heart palpitations
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Ulcers
  • Muscle soreness
  • Jaw pain

Are you a hothead or chilled? Where is your line in the sand? Meaning, what triggers your anger?

This entry was posted in #writetip, Writing and tagged , , , by Sue Coletta. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. Her backlist includes psychological thrillers, the Mayhem Series (books 1-3) and Grafton County Series, and true crime/narrative nonfiction. Now, she exclusively writes eco-thrillers, Mayhem Series (books 4-7 and continuing). Sue's appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion, and three episodes of A Time to Kill on Investigation Discovery. Learn more about Sue and her books at

38 thoughts on “Biological Responses to Anger

  1. Sue, I’m so glad there’s people like you in the world – although your husband did kinda have a point about the 4 guys!
    Thanks for a fascinating post. 🙂

      • Sue, I value you and everyone else I have interacted with on this blog. So much so I will risk it all to tell you what you must hear.

        Your husband doesn’t just have a point, he should have called you batshit crazy for doing what you did. The outside world is not as genteel as the polite social circles you and many others on this blog are familiar with, nor is it as well controlled as within the covers of your books. Tragedy has befallen many who failed to note this fact.

        Would it make any difference to you if I described what it sounds like when one’s skull is fractured, or what it feels like when one is on the ground getting kicked and stomped while your ribs break?

        Perhaps what it smells like when your hair burns and your flesh sizzles? Or the terror of not being able to get the bleeding stopped from a chest wound even though your clothes are soaked down to your ankles? And you have to keep moving.

        I’ve won more than I’ve lost but it only takes one serious loss and it’s game over. Knowing that I place my bets carefully and only on things that really matter. After I married and had children, such bets were even further restricted. Abuse of a dead deer carcass doesn’t make the cut. And I can’t admire someone who will bet the ranch on such things, no matter how noble it may seem at the time.

        I doubt you seriously considered the effect your actions could have had on your husband if he had to come home to an empty house. What words would he say at your eulogy?

        Please reconsider your actions, no matter how noble they may seem at the time, and rein in your impulses.

      • Typical bulletproof vests will only stop a common pistol bullet ~9mm. The offenders’ deer rifle rounds would easily penetrate your bulletproof vest if you were wearing one.

        Military grade vests have ceramic plates that will stop many rifle bullets but they are too heavy for routine police work.

  2. Thanks for this! I’m editing my MS and there’s a scene where my MC’s husband tells her he’s having an affair. She runs upstairs to the bedroom and hurls their wedding picture against the wall and takes all his clothes out of the closet and dumps them on the floor. After reading your post I think I’ll add the other senses as well.
    BTW I also have low blood pressure 107/65 and I’m ALWAYS cold too!

    • Jane, if you really want to amp it up, feel free to use a real life example of mine. Your MC and husband live in an apartment. In her fit of rage, she takes all his clothes out of the closet and dumps them on the floor. He is a smoker and has a can of lighter fluid on the dresser. She grabs the can and empties it on his clothes and sets them on fire. The fire department is called and puts the fire out but they are both homeless and he has only the clothes on his back. Hers are smoke damaged but can be salvaged.

      Does leave you at least one hanging loose end. How to deal with the arson charge your MC is sure to face.

      And no, not my wife and me in this scene. We’ve been married over 50 years. But one of my employees had this happen to him and I had to help him find another place to live and keep it a secret from his significant other.

  3. Interesting post, Sue. I’m generally a calm person, too. My husband called my doctor one time to ask if it was normal for my blood pressure to be 95/60. It was. I’m always cold, known for wearing four layers of clothing. Rather than get into a confrontation, I lift my hands, palms out, and back off.

    But, one time someone finally pushed past the line. I was so furious it scared me. My head felt like it was going to explode, and I was shaking, my voice was shaking, my face felt so tight I could barely speak. But speak I did. I didn’t even recognize myself. It was in defense of another person, and the recipient of my vitriol was a superior. (He didn’t have authority to fire me, thank goodness.) It’s never happened again, but I still remember the feeling.

    I wonder what kind of jollies men could get from kicking a dead animal. I would like to have seen you take them on. Maybe you made them think twice about doing something similar in the future.

    • Let’s hope so, Becky. I know what you mean. When it takes a lot for a calm person to snap, the rage can feel overwhelming. It did for me that day. I haven’t been that angry in years. The last time also involved men leaving that stretch of woods after poaching deer and turkey out of season. They tried to be so sneaky by parking down the street. What they didn’t count on was little ol’ me, watching their every move from my window. They’ve never returned, either. 😉

  4. Luckily, I have Mike Romeo to channel my anger. I’ve written several fight scenes this way.

    Random acts of cruelty boil my blood. I read about one the other day–three guys beating up one innocent, middle aged man. I sat down and wrote an opening scene in a similar setting wherein Romeo visits a world of hurt upon the three. Very satisfying.

  5. Sue, your physiological breakdowns of body reactions are always so educational. Thanks! I’m a brain science geek, too.

    Takes a lot to rile me. Abuse of a person or animal by a bully lights up the amygdala.

    Physical size is irrelevant when you have the temperament of a honey badger. Hope you’re around if someone ever decides to beat me up!

  6. Good morning, SUE. Excellent description of the neuro-adrenal response to danger.

    And I’m making a mental note to never cross you. Just kidding. Those four “hunters” were very likely emotionally immature idiots who had failed to bag a deer. Losers.

    I’m a hot head, triggered too easily. And every time I lose it, I tell myself that it won’t happen again. It’s just the way I’m wired.

    Thanks for the Neuro-Endocrine lecture this morning. Excellent! And have a wonderful week!

    • Thank you, Steve. The caps crack me up!

      I never would’ve taken you for a hothead. Some people are wired that way, you’re right. Sadly, many turn to alcohol to calm the beast. That never ends well. At least you have logs to hack! Bet that’s a stress-reliever.

      Wishing you a wonderful week, my friend.

  7. Another fascinating post, Sue. I’m also a low blood pressure person and don’t get angry often. But when I do … 🙂

    I read an article a while back about the emotion of anger. I can’t remember the source, but the premise was that some people who feel they don’t have control of their circumstances use anger as a way to feel in control. When you consider all the physical manifestations you mention in your post, it makes sense.

  8. Fantastic post, Sue! You gave us a wealth of information about anger this morning. This will be a terrific resource for us–a keeper.

    My mother and father both had tempers, becoming angry at unfairness and being overlooked. Dad was a hard working laborer who didn’t like the scorn and dismissal that he could receive from the “better classes”, while mom had lost most of her hearing in the when she was 11 because of contracting the measles and was badly bullied in school for being pretty much deaf.

    As such, in the past, I too could be a bit of a hot-head, at the same triggers of perceived injustice, unfairness or being overlooked/discounted. I did overcome that at work–really it was mainly a problem around friends and family, in those particular situations. Oddly enough I have great blood pressure that remains about 110/76 that only becomes elevated when I’m facing a dental procedure, like having a rear infected molar extracted in March 2020.

    I take ownership of my own emotional state–I understand why my folks struggled as they did. I’ve done a lot of work practicing Stoic Philosophy and Cognitive Behavioral therapy. It’s liberating to be able to choose to remain calm. Anger can be harnessed and expressed differently too, but I find remaining calm–after the initial visceral response. Stoic philosophy is about what you do after that immediate reaction to a situation.

    Thank you again, my friend, for this gift of a post, and the story of your fiercely stopping the desecration of that dead deer. Hope you have a tranquil week filled with words.

    • Aww, your poor mom. Kids can be so cruel.

      Stoic philosophy sounds interesting, Dale. I’ll have to look into that. I’m a big believer in meditation and silent contemplation. My favorite mantra is: Looking behind, I am filled with gratefulness. Looking ahead, I am filled with vision. Looking upward, I am filled with strength. Looking within, I discover peace.

      Thank you, my friend. Wishing the same for you.

  9. I, so far, have been as angry as you just once. It was when my father was at the assisted living facility and had a bad episode. Instead of the staff taking time to calm him (like I told them about and I always could do), they called the police. When I got there, a deputy had his handcuffs out. Seeing that he was ready to handcuff my frail, 90 year old father, I rushed up to the officer, glared at him (like I’ve never glared at anyone), and told him he was NOT going to hand-cuff my father, which gave him the incentive to take a step back. Then I went about caIming Daddy.

    That outburst was nothing like me. And I’m sure I exhibited all of the physical reactions mentioned. (PS The young officer was no older than my nephews, and I was probably about the same age as his mother. So he might have reacted like he did because he saw his mother scolding him, and not an irate citizen.) If I had been in my right mind, I never would have acted that way. To say the very least, my body had boiled the blood out of love.

    • I don’t blame you one bit, Laurie. That would enrage me, too. Shame on that officer. Had he used a little common sense (or common decency), he may’ve realized the absurdity of hand-cuffing a 90 year-old. Perhaps your outburst allowed him to reset.

  10. Thanks for this post. Super helpful.

    My protagonist in my revision WIP is seventeen and has anger issues, and every time my critique group read a chapter this summer, they kept saying that she sounds too young (i.e., out of control) or the emotion is too jarring. Your post here will help me with the latter, but confirms that no one sounds too young when angry.

    I have no idea if I’m calm or hotheaded. I get angry a lot, but was raised to keep that all in. And as mentioned, my MC has anger issues, so I’m leaning toward hotheaded by nature but calm through nurture.

    • I’m leaning toward hotheaded by nature but calm through nurture.

      Love that, Azali. So on-point.

      I agree. No one sounds too young when angry. Years ago, I knew a woman who feared one of her children. Can’t remember how old. Somewhere in the teen years. She was terrified of him, with good reason. Such a sad situation.

  11. Trusting your fear/flight response is a part of my training new pizza drivers. For a long time, I worked in “high risk” neighborhoods. If it doesn’t feel right, get out of there and think about it. That was your fear/flight response. Several thousand years ago, that told your distant relative not to play with the big toothed cat. It is why you are here now.

    It is hard to trust your instincts, but it can keep you alive.

  12. Great stuff, Sue! A keeper of a post…

    Around my neck of the woods, if I’d seen what you’d seen, I’d go outside too, but I’d grab my “friend” first. Just sayin’ . . .

    I’m a bit of a hot-head in certain situations, mostly the same as you. Bullies of weaker folks and animals for sure. And, boy howdy, if anyone so much as lays a hand on MY 90-year-old father, I’d whip out my Book of Eli machete and take care of it. (So to speak . . . )

    When I was about 10, my 11-year-old bro and I were in the neighborhood park and a squad of about 5 teenage guys started harassing him. Then one of them took a swing at him. I waded into the fray, all 70# of me, jumped on the guy’s back, and dug my fingers into his eye sockets like my dad had taught me. I can’t say that I won anything, but it sure was satisfying. They mostly laughed at me, but they left.

    And then my brother got mad at me for gettin’ in the middle of his fight. Go figure…

    Have a great and calm 🙂 Monday!

  13. I’m a bit of a hothead, Sue, though I’m learning to control my anger. Our old neighborhood had a drug problem. The dealers hung out on the corner by the library. One of them said something rude and unrepeatable to me and I charged up to them and yelled “SHUT UP.” My husband was appalled, but they did shut up.

  14. Another good blog, Sue. I can be a hothead, though I’m learning to control my temper. In our old neighborhood, we had a drug problem. The dealers hung out on the corner by the library. One of them said something rude and unrepeatable to me when I was returning a book. I marched over to them and yelled, SHUT YOUR MOUTH.
    Surprisingly, they did.
    My husband was appalled.

  15. What about when anger turns to vengeance? What when you reach that point that, vengeance reaches, ‘melt the sand into glass’? The last month has been very hard and shows no sign of calming down.

    So far today a therapist was fired for anti-semitic posts they posted last night. A principal at a PR firm called for genocide. My congressperson happily calls for genocide and her supports rally to repeat the call. The Campus Antisemitism Legal Line for Jewish college students to report antisemitism sent out fliers. A young man my eldest went to pre-K with finished basic training. His unit was awarded the Patrol Warrior badge. The last drill of basic training was in Gaza.

    Sorry, my anger reached vengeance on October 8. When I looked up the Samson Option of the IDF, the weapons that may or may not exsist. The nuclear weapons.

    • Wow, Alan. That’s a lot for anyone to unpack. Hate groups and people being targeted for their skin color, age, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, etc. etc. is the reason why I stopped watching the news. It’s too stressful.

      Anger reaching the point of vengeance makes great fiction!

      Now, you’ve piqued my curiosity. How does the body and brain react to different levels of anger? If there’s a marked difference, it might be a fascinating follow-up post. Thanks for the idea!

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