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Why does stress make me so angry

While anger is not commonly a symptom that is associated with anxiety, there is evidence to suggest that when a person has an anxiety disorder, the rate and intensity of their anger can increase [source]. This piece will explore the relationship that can exist between anxiety and anger.

Why can Anxiety make you Angry?

Anxiety and anger can become connected in a number of different ways:

Anxiety activates people’s fight or flight instinct

When somebody has an anxiety disorder, they will often feel intense fear towards possible threats and dangers. For someone with a social anxiety disorder, this could be crowds or social events, whereas for someone with generalised anxiety disorder, their fear could be towards a broad range of potential scenarios such as losing their job, damaging their friendships or getting into accidents.  

These thoughts cause people to experience symptoms of anxiety such as an increased heartbeat, shortness of breath and nausea. This is because thinking about the possible dangers activates their fight or flight instinct.

While some people ‘take flight’ when they feel anxious and stay away from possible dangers, others find that their fight response is activated. This can result in them becoming angry. This typically happens when the person feels trapped or is struggling to comprehend and express how they are feeling.

People can often feel angry towards their anxiety disorder

People with anxiety can become frustrated and angry about the impact that their disorder is having on their life. Typically, they will direct this anger at themselves.

Irritability is a symptom of anxiety

When a person is experiencing anxiety, they will often be more irritable than usual. It is a common symptom of many types of anxiety disorder.

With their body and mind overwhelmed with worry, the person can feel stressed and depleted of energy. This can make it difficult for them to shrug off or ignore things as they normally would be able to do. In turn, this can cause them to become more irritable and anger quicker.

People can feel anxious about their anger

When someone becomes angry when they feel anxious, it can leave them feeling guilty, ashamed and embarrassed afterwards.

This can cause the person to fear becoming angry in the future. In turn, they may bottle up their anger around others as they worry about being judged, damaging relationships or hurting other people’s feelings.

Coping with Anxiety and Anger Outbursts

If you have been struggling with anxiety and anger, it may be useful for you to introduce a few practical coping strategies for anxiety to help you improve how you’ve been feeling:

  1. Take a few minutes for yourself: If something is making you feel stressed, anxious or uncomfortable, remove yourself from that environment if you can. Find a quiet space and give yourself time for your stress responses to reduce, using techniques to help calm your anxiety in the short-term.
  2. Exercise outdoors: When you exercise, you focus on your body, which gives you little time to concentrate on or mull over any anxious or angry thoughts. Just being outdoors is known as a well-known mood booster. They stimulate the release of neurotransmitters including endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin, which can leave us feeling more positive
  3. Write down your thoughts: Whether you have a physical diary or keep notes on your phone, writing can be a good way to release any anxious or angry thoughts. The act of writing or typing these thoughts can feel as though they are flowing from your mind onto the paper or phone, helping to create some distance between you and them
  4. Look after your wellbeing: Give yourself the time to recharge your batteries and keep yourself well. Remember that you deserve to look after yourself and that doing so is incredibly important for your body and mind. Sleep well, eat right and do the things that you enjoy in life

We may associate anxiety with being worried or scared, but some may also feel a sense of anger, something experts say is common, but shouldn’t be ignored.

Dr. Melanie Badali, registered psychologist and board director at AnxietyBC, says in general, anger is not usually considered to be a symptom of anxiety.

“Anger and anxiety are generally regarded as different emotional experiences with some overlap. They have both unique and common biological, cognitive, and social features,” she tells Global News. “Anger is usually connected to some type of frustration [and] anxiety is usually connected with an overestimation of threat and an underestimation ability to deal with that threat.”

READ MORE: Mild anxiety can get worse — here’s why you shouldn’t ignore it

How anger relates to anxiety

Joshua Nash, a counsellor based in Austin, Texas, wrote an article for GoodTherapy.org in 2014 about anxiety and anger in particular.

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“The point of my article was to show that anger is usually the emotion that people might identify in the moment, but that another emotion (anxiety for example) might be ‘underneath’ the anger, so to speak,” Nash tells Global News. “You won’t know anxiety underlies your anger until you’ve 1) fully felt the emotion first and then 2) introspected sufficiently to determine that the cause of your emotional upset was something you were afraid of.”

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Click to share quote on Twitter: “The point of my article was to show that anger is usually the emotion that people might identify in the moment, but that another emotion (anxiety for example) might be ‘underneath’ the anger, so to speak,” Nash tells Global News. “You won’t know anxiety underlies your anger until you’ve 1) fully felt the emotion first and then 2) introspected sufficiently to determine that the cause of your emotional upset was something you were afraid of.”

READ MORE: Follow this one tip the next time you’re stressed, anxious or nervous

He explains anxiety can morph into anger because we may not be directly dealing with our anxiety.

“Anger very oftentimes is indeed a symptom — it’s the expression of judging another emotion as too painful to address.”

When does it happen?

Dr. Eilenna Denisoff, clinical director of CBT Associates in Toronto, says there are several situations when people with anxiety (or other mental health conditions) can turn to anger.

If someone has an obsessive compulsive disorder, for example, and they follow a very strict routine, any kind of disruption from others could lead to anger.

“When that gets activated, they will respond in a way to try to convince other people to follow their ritual, and if they don’t, they get angry.”

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READ MORE: Reality check: Does too much sugar lead to depression?

And often, when someone is scared or worried about something, they could turn to anger to feel more in control of their situation.

In relationships, she adds, those with social anxiety can also start arguments (sometimes on purpose) with their partners, knowing they could get out of social situations.

“We all have anxiety systems that are natural and normal, but when it interferes with their quality of life, work or relationships, you need to do something about it.”

And ignoring it, Nash says, is worse.

“Unprocessed anger can also lead to medical issues and most especially relationship issues. Unaddressed anger festers in the body mind. It sits there waiting to be unleashed. It either does get unleashed, causing chaos in the person’s life and/or leads to addiction issues.”

How to manage anxiety and anger

Badali says there are three things you can do to manage your anxiety, adding that cognitive behavioural techniques also work.

Tip 1. Challenge anxious or hostile thoughts
This is also called helpful thinking or realistic, rational or balanced thinking, Badali says, because often when people are angry and anxious, they may feel frustrated or threatened.

“This strategy involves learning to see yourself, others, and the world in a balanced and fair way, without being overly negative or focusing only on the bad.

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Tip 2. Learn to relax and be mindful
Calm breathing, muscle relaxation and mindfulness are key, Badali says. You can also try apps to help you meditate or chill out.

“Don’t expect these to change your emotions when you are already anxious or angry. Think of them like — exercise, start practicing them daily, you will see your skills building over time.”

Tip 3. Think before you act (or don’t act!)
If you are feeling angry, before yelling or fighting, ask yourself, “Will this action help make things better or worse? Am I going to feel better now but feel worse later?”

And Nash says at the end of the day, it’s not about coping with anxiety, but rather understanding your condition in full.

“When we learn to connect directly with our anxiety, it doesn’t morph into anger, so there’s no anger to ‘cope with.’ Instead, we fully admit the fear we’re feeling and address it head on.”

Where to get help

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868  all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

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Anxiety is tightly linked to worry and fear that is out of the ordinary for everyday triggers. Many individuals with an anxiety disorder will often be quick to anger; however, the link between anger and anxiety is often missed or overlooked. Anxiety is often connected with overstimulation from a stressful environment or threat, combined with the perceived inability to deal with that threat. In contrast, anger is often tied to frustration. Often when anxiety is left unacknowledged and unexpressed, it can turn into frustration, which can lead to anger. When anxiety turns to anger, it is because an individual who expresses anger will have an underlying fear about something in their life. When individuals are scared or worried about something, they often choose anger, unconsciously, as a way to feel as though they are in control of their anxiety. 

 

Unprocessed Anger

Anxiety not only presents as a pounding heart, shortness of breath, clammy skin, and racing thoughts, but anxiety can also present in more subtle ways such as anger or frustration. Individuals with undiagnosed anxiety may find themselves lashing out and becoming frustrated over everyday occurrences that usually do not warrant an emotional reaction. 

Road rage is a perfect example of this. Traffic and crowds are often triggers of anxiety, which can result in becoming angry with people on the road. Maybe they are going to be late for work, are in a bad mood, or have a stressful deadline looming ahead. Sitting in traffic is only adding fuel to their fire. As a result, these people lash out at other cars when, in reality, they are anxious about the stressful environment and personal issues they have going on in their life. 

Giving in to anger can ruin relationships and have adverse effects on every aspect of an individual’s life. It can lead to lashing out, making rash decisions, and engaging in risky behaviors. 

When individuals feel threatened, their fight or flight response kicks in, and individuals go into defense mode, which sometimes means fighting. 

 

Not all anger is linked to anxiety, but often if individuals take a step back and uncover what is triggering their anger, they may discover that they are showing signs of fear and panic, which may be the root of an anxiety disorder. 

 

How Symptoms of Anxiety Can Trigger Anger

Individuals with anxiety usually have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep and, as a result, may be sleep deprived. Over time,  lack of sleep can trigger individuals to become more sensitive to small problems and, as a result, are quick to anger. Yelling at the dog for barking, becoming angry in traffic, getting upset because of a long line at the grocery store, or lashing out over an honest mistake are all small triggers that turn into monumental challenges for an individual who is struggling with anxiety and is sleep-deprived. Anger does not have to be intentional, and with individuals who have an anxiety disorder, this anger is often an automatic reaction to an anxious trigger or the effects of long-standing anxiety. 

 

Individuals who have an anxiety disorder are often rigid in their daily routines since the fear of the unknown is often a trigger for their anxiety. When something disrupts their daily routine, it is not uncommon for the individual to not know how to cope with the change and, as a result, lash out in anger. 

 

Seeking Help For Anger and Anxiety

Anxiety and anger can be a toxic combination. Seeking treatment for the anxiety disorder can help an individual uncover the reasons for their anger. Being mindful about anger outbursts by keeping a journal and taking time to reflect on why this anger occurred can often help individuals realize their anxiety triggers, and then seek therapy to find healthy ways to cope with them. If you or a loved one are in search of treatment for anxiety, please contact Discovery Mood & Anxiety Programs or fill out our mental health evaluation.

 

Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a clinical content writer and enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of mental health and addiction medicine. She is a family medicine physician and author, who also teaches and contributes to medicine board education. Her passion lies within educating the public on preventable diseases including mental health disorders and the stigma associated with them. She is also an outdoor activist and spends most of her free time empowering other women to get outside into the backcountry.

 

 

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