Physiology of Anger

Brindusa Vanta, MD, DHMHS
Medical editor

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What Hormones Are Involved in Anger?

There is no specific hormone known as the "anger hormone." However, certain hormones are associated with anger responses. For example, adrenal glands release adrenaline and noradrenaline in response to stress or perceived threats. These hormones prepare the body for the fight-or-flight response and are associated with increased heart rate, blood pressure, and energy levels. When you become angry, your sympathetic nervous system activates, leading to the release of these two hormones. Further, cortisol levels may rise, contributing to heightened arousal and vigilance during anger episodes.[1]

Like other emotions, anger is experienced in our bodies as well as in our minds. In fact, there is a complex series of physiological (body) events that occur as we become angry.

Understanding Anger: Hormones and the Brain


The physiological response to anger is complicated, involving several hormones, brain chemicals, and specific areas of the brain like the amygdala and prefrontal cortex.

The Amygdala and Anger

Emotions begin inside the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure that is considered part of the "old brain" or a more primitive brain structure. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for identifying threats to our well-being and sending out an alarm when threats are identified, resulting in us taking steps to protect ourselves.

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The amygdala is so efficient at warning us about threats that it gets us reacting before the prefrontal cortex (the newer, more evolved part of the brain responsible for thought and judgment) can check on the reasonableness of our reaction.

In other words, our brains are wired in such a way as to influence us to act before we can properly consider the consequences of our actions. This is not an excuse for behaving badly—people can and do control their aggressive impulses, and you can, too, with some practice. Instead, it means that learning to manage anger properly is a skill that has to be learned.

The Prefrontal Cortex and Regulation

Although your emotions can rage out of control, the prefrontal cortex of your brain, which is located just behind your forehead, can keep your emotions in proportion. If the amygdala handles emotion, the prefrontal cortex handles judgment and decision-making, helping regulate emotions and control impulsive reactions.[3]

The left prefrontal cortex can switch off your emotions. It serves in an executive role to keep things under control. Getting control over your anger means learning ways to help your prefrontal cortex get the upper hand over your amygdala so that you have control over how you react to anger feelings.

Among the many ways to make this happen are relaxation techniques (which reduce your arousal and decrease your amygdala activity) and the use of cognitive control techniques, which help you practice using your judgment to override your emotional reactions.

The Role of Catecholamines in Anger

As you become angry, your body's muscles tense up. Inside your brain, neurotransmitters known as catecholamines, such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, are released, causing you to experience a burst of energy lasting up to several minutes. This is what causes the fight-or-flight response.[2]

This burst of energy is behind the common angry desire to take immediate protective action. At the same time, your heart rate accelerates, your blood pressure rises, and your rate of breathing increases. Your face may flush as increased blood flow enters your limbs and extremities in preparation for physical action. Your attention narrows and becomes locked onto the target of your anger.[2]

Soon, you can pay attention to nothing else. In quick succession, additional brain neurotransmitters and hormones (among them adrenaline and noradrenaline) are released, which trigger a lasting state of arousal. You're now ready to fight.

As Dr. Brindusa Vanta, MD, says, "Another catecholamine—dopamine—is also involved in anger. This neurotransmitter modulates the intensity of anger responses, affecting the perception of threat. More research is needed to fully understand the role of dopamine in anger."

Recognizing Anger: Signs and Symptoms

Although many of us may be aware of when we are feeling angry, it’s important to know the early physical signs of anger that can indicate a fight-or-flight anger response, such as:

  • Increased heart rate and breathing
  • Muscle tension, particularly in the jaw, shoulders, and fists
  • Flushed or red face
  • Clenched jaw or fists
  • Rapid speech or speaking loudly
  • Feeling hot or sweaty

The reason you experience these physical effects is because of the release of catecholamines. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, while noradrenaline enhances alertness and vigilance. These hormones cause blood vessels to constrict, redirecting blood flow to major muscle groups and increasing energy levels to deal with perceived threats.[2]

The Wind-Down Phase After Anger Subsides

If anger has a physiological preparation phase during which our resources are mobilized for a fight, it also has a wind-down phase as well. We start to relax back toward our resting state when the target of our anger is no longer accessible or an immediate threat. It is difficult to relax from an angry state, however.

Though we do calm down, it takes a very long time for us to return to our resting state. During this slow cool-down period, we are more likely to get very angry in response to minor irritations that normally would not bother us.

The same lingering arousal that keeps us primed for more anger can also interfere with our ability to remember the details of our angry outbursts clearly. Arousal is vital for efficient remembering. As any student knows, it is difficult to learn new material while sleepy. Moderate arousal levels help the brain learn and enhance memory, concentration, and performance. There is an optimum level of arousal that benefits memory, however, and when arousal exceeds that optimum level, it makes it more difficult for new memories to be formed.

High levels of arousal (such as those present when we are angry) significantly decrease your ability to concentrate. This is why it is difficult to remember details of really explosive arguments.

Hormonal Influence: Testosterone and Cortisol

Testosterone and cortisol levels can influence anger and aggression in a few ways. Testosterone, often associated with dominance and assertiveness, has been linked to increased aggression, while cortisol, the body's primary stress hormone, may also play a role in regulating emotional responses.[4]

High levels of testosterone coupled with elevated cortisol levels may exacerbate feelings of anger and aggression, while imbalances in these hormones can contribute to emotional dysregulation.[4]

Although high levels of testosterone are often thought of as a male trait, it’s important to note that various factors can influence testosterone’s effects on aggression, including environmental and social contexts.[4] On the other hand, elevated cortisol levels are often indicative of chronic stress and can contribute to heightened emotional reactivity and aggression. Chronic stress, lack of sleep, poor diet, and certain medical conditions can cause cortisol and testosterone imbalances, exacerbating feelings of anger and aggression.[5]

There are a few lifestyle changes you can make to help balance your hormones and aid anger management, such as: 

  • Seeking social support and engaging in positive social interactions that can buffer against stress and promote emotional resilience
  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle with balanced nutrition, adequate sleep, and limited caffeine and alcohol intake, which can help stabilize hormone levels and support overall health
  • Practicing relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga, to lower cortisol levels and promote emotional well-being.
  • Engaging in regular physical activity and exercise, which can help regulate hormone levels and reduce stress

As Dr. Brindusa Vanta, MD, says, "Mindfulness-Based Anger Management (MBAM) is a newer therapy that combines mindfulness techniques with traditional anger management strategies. MBAM helps improve emotion regulation and decrease aggressive responses."


  1. Lupien, S. J., McEwen, B. S., Gunnar, M. R., & Heim, C. (2007). Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 434-445.
  2. Paravati S, Rosani A, Warrington SJ. Physiology, Catecholamines. [Updated 2022 Oct 24]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from:
  3. Davidson, R. J., & Irwin, W. (1999). The functional neuroanatomy of emotion and affective style. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3(1), 11-21.
  4. Bos, P. A., Panksepp, J., Bluthé, R. M., & van Honk, J. (2012). Acute effects of steroid hormones and neuropeptides on human social–emotional behavior: A review of single administration studies. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 33(1), 17-35.
  5. Kajantie, E., & Phillips, D. I. (2006). The effects of sex and hormonal status on the physiological response to acute psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 31(2), 151-178.

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