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What Happens In Your Brain When You Get Mad, And How To Control It

Joseph Shrand discusses his new book, "Outsmarting Anger: 7 Strategies for Defusing Our Most Dangerous Emotion."

I’m late for one of my jobs and after noting my empty gas tank and fighting with a broken car door, I pray to a god I don’t believe in to get me through the first traffic light, which is the longest light on the earth. Children have been conceived, born, and taught to read while waiting for it to turn green. I need to breeze through it. 


Of course, this means some pinhead not only cuts me off but then pokes along in front of me at 10mph, assuring that we’ll both be sitting at that light until Mars is colonized. My blood pressure escalates while he drifts lazily into the turn lane and I realize, I know that guy! Suddenly he’s not the enemy. He’s just another harried driver, like I am, and I wonder where he’s going instead of how late I might be. Everything gets calmer. The light even turns green.  


In a phone interview I tell an abridged version of this story to Joseph Shrand , instructor of psychiatry at Harvard, director of the CASTLE program (Clean and Sober Teens Living Empowered) in Brockton, MA and author of the new book  Outsmarting Anger: 7 Strategies for Defusing Our Most Dangerous Emotion. (He’s also Joe from the 1972 PBS kids’ show Zoom , which in itself could make you feel better about whatever was bugging you a minute ago.) He laughs and spots instantly why my brain went from furious to friendly in a matter of seconds. 


“They’re part of your group!” Shrand says. That being the case I don’t mind sharing what he describes as the three areas critical to our human sense of survival: residence, resources and relationships. Because the other driver and I have a relationship (we’re friends) and share a residence (our city) I don’t mind sharing my resources with him (the road). Those things are necessary to us, and our brains have evolved strategies over the years for protecting them. 


But as our circumstances changed, our brains evolved, so we have a much bigger bag of tricks than we once did to manage a constant influx of new stimuli, some of it truly infuriating. The limbic system, the more primitive part of our brains (though not the most primitive), generator of “fight or flight” might react one way (“Run him off the road!”), while the more developed part, the prefrontal cortex, or PFC, seat of reason, might tally the consequences and react differently (“I’m not going to jail because of  that idiot”). These two confer all the time, and in my case, the PFC kept me calm long enough to see the other driver was a friend, which triggered a rush of oxytocin, the chemical of bonding and trust, which makes us want to build relationships, not tear them  down —an important element of survival for humans.

“As evolving animals just a few million years ago we weren’t the biggest, we weren’t the fastest, we weren’t the strongest. We were prey! And then we began to form these small social groups and our survival potential increased so dramatically that human beings are now pretty much everywhere on the planet,” Shrand says.

“But to be part of that group you have to have value,” and if you don’t feel valued, you feel vulnerable. The respect we give to others leads us to have value, he says. “Value leads to trust and trust is oxytocin, which binds us together.”

Bottom line: we have a pharmacy between our ears capable of producing a drug that aids in building alliances, if we have the power to nudge it into action in ourselves and in others. It’s a quietly revolutionary idea, especially when a lot of us are used to taking a pill for everything from our sniffles to our temperaments, but one that feels very likely to catch on, especially  as our understanding of our own brains and the chemicals they produce increases .

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