Sourasky: Mechanism for coping with anger, signs of PTSD

Researchers at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center have claimed a ‘breakthrough’ discovery of a brain mechanism that makes it possible to cope with anger and which predicts the appearance of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.

Stress Relief Techniques (photo credit: PR)
Stress Relief Techniques
(photo credit: PR)
Researchers at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center have claimed a “breakthrough” discovery of a brain mechanism that makes it possible to cope with anger and predicts the appearance of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.
The team, led by Prof. Talma Hendler, head of Sourasky’s Tel Aviv Sagol Center for Brain Functions, looked at the coping mechanisms of combat troops in unfair and frustrating interpersonal situations.
Hendler noted that the results, published recently in the journal Psychological Medicine, “point to a biological mechanism of anger and constitute the basis for a future brain-guided treatment for psychological disorders that express uncontrolled rages.”
The soldiers were examined during trading games in which one was scanned by a functional-MRI (fMRI) machine that measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. The study, done in cooperation with the IDF’s Mental Health Branch and Tel Aviv University, examined brain reactions of soldiers in incidents involving rage.
Reactions were tested at the beginning of service and a year later, after soldiers completed advanced combat training, when the demands for coping with emotional pressure in extreme situations are very high. As a result of such pressures, soldiers often suffer from problems with sleep, repeated thoughts about pressing events, a “short fuse” and poor moods, such as those that appear in people after a traumatic event.
Hendler said results showed a connection between the brain’s ability to regulate anger in an interpersonal conflict and the tendency is to develop symptoms of pressure from constant stress during combat training. By using an fMRI scanner, “we succeeded in identifying the biological mechanism controlling anger identified with harm from pressure and trauma. The mechanism links the management of anger and coping with pressures. Therefore, we aim for future treatment of brain-oriented mental disorders expressed by rage, such as PTSD and bipolar affective disorder.”
Anger, which every human sometimes feels, is aroused mostly in interpersonal relations and can lead to verbal or physical violence. Aggression may result and is common in a variety of anxiety disorders, especially in PTSD.
Until now, the connection between control of anger and the development and expression of pressure had not been studied, Hendler said.
The researchers found that soldiers reported less anger when the internal lobe of the frontal region of the brain functioned – the area connected with assessment, control and regulation of feelings. They also earned more money in an “unfair game,” meaning that they succeeded in controlling their anger and made more effective decisions in the game. However, participants who were aggressive and angry during the game and turned down suggestions, showed a physiological arousal and hyperactivity in the part of the brain responsible for lower secretion of stress hormones.
At the end of the combat exercise, there was an increase in traumatic pressure symptoms, but not in the control group of civilians of the same age who volunteered for a year of service. The amount of frontal cortex activity when soldiers received unfair and infuriating offers at the beginning of the experiment, predicted their success in coping emotionally with pressure at the end of the year of training.
The magnitude of activity in the brain stem, which is responsible for stimulation, was greater among soldiers that suffered more from stress symptoms – in other words, activity in the frontal cortex predicted how well they could cope with stress in combat training.
The team thanked the soldier-participants and stressed that they did not suffer from PTSD and did not develop emotional problems as a result of their combat service, thus additional studies are need to study anger in soldiers diagnosed with PTSD. However, they concluded, the study lays the basis for studying non-invasive treatments of uncontrolled anger disorders, such as depression, trauma and anxiety.