Does Indulging Anger Change Our Brains?

Continuing on in the “Consumed” series with a look at how anger can consume us

Rough Path to Tread
Photo by dospaz

In the early, messy days of my marriage, I was often frustrated, hurt, offended and ultimately resentful of my husband. Little did I know then that …

… every time I indulged my anger toward my husband, or the situation we found ourselves in, I was changing the way my brain worked—making it more receptive to the frustrated, hurt, offended and resentful thoughts I was feeding it.

I’ve often referred to Everett Worthington, Forgiveness Researcher, Expert and Author here at MM. Click here to read more posts about his work. His book, Forgiving and Reconciling has largely impacted my counseling practice, not to mention, life.

Everett not only knows his stuff … he’s lived it as well. His mother was murdered in a burglary gone wrong many years ago in Knoxville, Tennessee. Amazingly, Everett did not wait to let his anger settle down or the pain to lessen before he decided to forgive. He immediately began to implement the strategies that would basically “rewire” his brain.

One of the first strategies he implemented was empathizing with the young boys who killed his mother by trying to imagine their feelings and decisions that led up to the horrific event.

Yeah, I know! Tell me about it! How could he do that?

I think it’s because he knew that if he didn’t, he would have a much harder time forgiving the offender down the road. And remember … forgiveness is about freeing yourself from the offender. In many ways, forgiveness helps you more than it does your offender.

Here’s what he said about this process in his book,

“Trauma seems to cause the emotional centers of the brain to become extremely active and charge emotional experience strongly. By immediately imagining a traumatic scene and pairing it with the emotion of compassion, I probably reprogrammed my emotions of rage and fear more quickly and more powerfully than if I had tried to imagine the scene a week or month later.”*

Ultimately, his ability to forgive and find healing were enhanced and sped up because he didn’t let the anger linger. I have learned this truth as well. It has helped my attitude toward my husband and others tremendously … but I’m still a work in progress.

The point I’m trying to make is that we can easily become consumed with anger toward our spouses not only because they continually do things that hurt us, but because we retrace that hurt over and over in our brains—making a pathway that is hard to erase.

If you are struggling with anger toward your spouse, or your kids, or people in general, then let this be your wake up call! It will not get any better. In fact, it will only get worse as you ruminate over and over, forming that well-worn path of bitterness. And this “path” won’t just affect that particular relationship, but all of your relationships in time. So make the choice today to forgive and walk along with me on a new, forgiving path. 

* p. 92, Forgiving and Reconciling by Everett Worthington

Today’s Post is Linked to –
WIPWednesday
  • Annie

    Hi, my name is Annie from http://www.luvutothemoon.com and I found you in the WlWW hop. Thanks for this post. It is so true. I am still harboring so much bitterness toward my husband because of traumatic things that happened early in our marriage. It has turned me into the kind of wife that I don’t want to be. What you said is so right, the anger path has been formed in my brain and is its so easy for me to jump on it in a moments notice. I will work on this, so thanks again.

  • messymarriage

    It’s an easy trap to fall into and the real problem is, we don’t even realize it. It’s not like an actual path that we can clearly see has been worn, but if a scientist were to look at the neural pathways of our brains, they would see the path! Thankfully we can rewire this with God’s help and His truth. Thanks so much for coming by and encouraging me, Annie. I will pray that you and I both intentionally go down the forgiving path instead!

  • Sherri

    Oh this is so true. I also find that when I am around friends that are upset with their spouse that I tend to also get upset with mine even when there is nothing to be upset about. I am constantly reminding myself not to fall in to that negativity trap.

  • Becky Kopitzke

    Oh, wow, Beth, I’ve never considered how emotions might rewire our brains. What a frightening thought and a sobering perspective on my “harmless” little habit of flying off the handle at times. Great post, as usual!

  • messymarriage

    You are so right, Sherri. Anger can be contagious. We need to be careful about what we allow ourselves to hear, not just think. Thanks for adding that important point to the conversation!

  • messymarriage

    Yes, it is alarming to me, as well. It makes me want to change my mindset all the more when I realize what’s at stake. Thanks so much for coming by and encouraging me, Becky!

  • Michele-Lyn

    This is really informative. I am blurry eyed at the moment. I am going to book mark this post. Thank you 🙂

  • messymarriage

    Do you think so? Well, thanks, Michele-Lyn! I appreciate your encouragement and hope that your blurry eyed moment cleared up quickly! 😉

  • I love Worthington!!! Thanks for linking up!

  • messymarriage

    Yes, Worthington is one of my faves, Mary Beth! And thanks so much for coming by and hosting!

  • Diane Tolley

    Oh, this is so true! Anger destroys! Root it out while it is still a young plant. Before it grows into a tree! Thank you for sharing on NOBH!

  • messymarriage

    That’s a great analogy, Diane. It sure can grow into something as big and strong as a tree if we don’t deal with it early on. 🙂