“It’s really a colloquial term—not a clinical one—to mean having a flash of anger so extreme, it takes over your mind,” says psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital and host of the How Can I Help? podcast. What happens when people see red is that “the emotional state supersedes the rational state, and we do not process things,” says neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, PsyD. “There is so much emotion that replaces proper cause-and-effect processing in the brain.”
As far as how this phrase came to be part of the cultural lexicon, “it’s widely believed that ‘seeing red’ originates from bullfighting and the matador’s use of a red cape to deceive the bull,” says Dr. Hafeez. “The matador beckons to the bull with a red cape, which agitates the bull who charges for the cape.” As the term is used now, it can refer to anyone who responds like the bull in the above scenario: becoming enraged or lashing out in anger.
“When you see red, your emotional state can supersede your rational state.” —neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, PsyD
When you see red, “you feel out of control—you’re so angered and enraged that you feel like you could hit something or someone, or say something hurtful,” says clinical psychologist Thea Gallagher, PsyD, clinical assistant professor of psychology at NYU Langone Health and co-host of the Mind in View podcast. And that's where the danger of seeing red really comes into play: In that moment of rage, your words or actions could irreparably damage a relationship, given you could lose sight of how they might affect someone else's feelings.
What usually causes people to see red?
While every person's triggers can be different, there are several situations that commonly prompt this kind of hotheaded response. “It’s often a wound to one’s pride or self image—something that causes extreme embarrassment or shame, a direct verbal or physical attack, or something that causes intense frustration,” says Dr. Saltz. “What elicits these emotions can vary from person to person.”
Your personal history can play a role, too, according to Dr. Hafeez. “Everyone has unique anger triggers based on what they were taught to expect from themselves, others, and the world around them,” she says. In particular, the ways in which certain emotional responses were modeled to you as a kid could factor in to how you naturally react in similar scenarios years later. “If aggression or heightened anger was something you witnessed a lot, you may be more likely to act in the same way,” says Dr. Gallagher.
Of course, certain people might experience this phenomenon of seeing red often, while others experience it rarely, if at all; while the latter group might possess a calmer innate nature or perhaps more childhood experience watching loved ones process upsetting situations with patience, the former group could simply be more prone to angering easily or have more difficulty managing angry feelings when they arise. Similarly, folks who tend to be more impulsive and less inhibited may also be more likely to see red if someone ticks them off, says Dr. Saltz.
Having unprocessed emotions around a particular trigger can be a driving factor, too, says Dr. Gallagher. For example, let's say you tend to feel intellectually inferior to people because you weren’t a great student in school; in that case, hearing someone make a comment that you feel insults your intelligence, especially in a public setting, may really set you off.
4 cool-down tactics for whenever hot anger strikes
Seeing red reflects an activation of your fight-or-flight response, or a physiological state that occurs involuntarily when the brain's amygdala is triggered by a stressful situation. Because this response causes you to lose touch with the prefrontal cortex, or the part of the brain that's involved in thinking and reasoning, you may feel mostly out of control. But, one of the few things that you can control in this state is your breathing—which you should take advantage of, as a route to calmness.
“Slow, deliberate breathing actively calls off the state of alarm in the sympathetic nervous system,” says Dr. Hafeez. She recommends taking five deep, measured breaths and seeing where that gets you.
2. Figure out what’s really behind your anger
Anger usually comes from a mix of other emotions, says Dr. Hafeez, including rejection, jealousy, loss, fear of competition, and criticism. “All those emotions can manifest in anger, but recognizing exactly which one might be affecting your mood can help you gain control over it,” she says.
3. Try to “interrupt” the anger
The key to this is to look out for angry thoughts while they're more reflective of irritation or annoyance—and before they turn into full-blown rage. It's best to put a stop to that train of thought while you still can, says Dr. Hafeez. “If you see something going wrong, act forcefully and quickly before you lose your cool while still having a suitable manner and humor,” she says. “By clearly addressing irritations in a timely fashion, the feelings may not have the chance to build to the point where you lose control.”
4. Recognize the physical signs that you’re about to see red
As with the mental predecessors to seeing red, there are often physical ones, too. If you're aware of the way your body tends to respond to anger, including how your stomach feels and what's happening with your hands, you might be able to intervene before things really go off the rails. “These physiological responses to anger will vary from person to person but are [usually] easily recognizable,” says Dr. Hafeez. “By listening to your early warning system and recognizing when your anger starts to escalate, you’ll know when to do something calming, like taking a walk, to bring your emotional state back down.”
If you find that you tend to see red a lot, or you’ve noticed that it's happening way more often than you're used to, Dr. Gallagher recommends seeking out mental-health counseling. “There are a lot of skills that a therapist can teach you to help slow down your anger response to certain triggers,” she says. “And with time, you can learn to respond more effectively.”
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