Science explains how anxiety can often show up as anger
Posted June 23
When most people think of anxiety, the image that comes to mind is generally of someone biting their nails, obsessing, and tossing and turning wide-eyed in bed, unable to sleep. While these symptoms are common, there’s another, less obvious symptom of anxiety that’s not as commonly recognized-and it just might surprise some.
According to several studies, anxiety can often present itself as anger, and the two emotions are frequently intertwined for those living with ongoing anxiety.
Heidi Dewitt, a behaviorist who was diagnosed with depression and anxiety as a teen, recently wrote a piece for The Mighty about how her anxiety usually manifests as anger. “When I snap at a co-worker for no reason at all, or I am inexplicably moody, that's anxiety,” she wrote. “When I talk negatively, complain, or rant, that's usually anxiety.”
The Science Behind The Anxiety-Anger Connection
While it may be hard to understand for those without anxiety (or for those whose nerves come out in other ways), the science backs up Dewitt’s claims. A study published in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy in 2012 found that participants who exhibited symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) also showed higher levels of anger. To make things worse, participants’ heightened levels of hostility and internalized anger seemed to exacerbate the severity of their GAD symptoms.
In fact, ongoing irritability is one of the main symptoms of GAD, and it’s often used as a key diagnostic feature when psychologists screen a patient for the disorder.
According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Psychiatry, those who suffer from social anxiety can also experience outbursts of anger, usually as a response to others’ criticism or negative judgment.
So why are anxiety and anger linked? Researchers still haven’t found an explanation, but some believe that it could be due to the faulty thought processes that lead to heightened levels of either emotion.
“When a situation is ambiguous, such that the outcome could be good or bad, anxious individuals tend to assume the worst. That often results in heightened anxiety,” Sonya Deschênes, the researcher behind the 2012 study, told Concordia. “There is also evidence of that same thought process in individuals who are easily angered. Therefore, anger and GAD may be two manifestations of the same biased thought process.”
Dr. Gregory Jantz, a counselor and author of “Overcoming Anxiety, Worry, and Fear,” suggested in a blog post that anger could be an unhealthy coping mechanism for dealing with anxiety. He explained that both emotions run on adrenaline, so it’s fairly easy for people to reroute from anxiety to anger. “Anxiety leaves you feeling out of control and vulnerable. Anger makes you feel powerful,” he wrote in 2014. “Compared to each other, anger can appear the clear winner.”
The thing is, outside of psychology circles, not everyone readily associates anger with anxiety-which can make it hard for people to know why someone is suddenly snapping. “When I was a kid and my sister was comforted for being upset, I was scolded for losing my temper,” Dewitt wrote in her post for The Mighty. “Tiny triggers were huge triggers, and my level of anger-anxiety varied from moment to moment.”
How To Reduce Your Anxiety
Fortunately, there are several ways to reduce anxiety (and the anger that comes with it). Treatment can include medication, cognitive behavioral therapy and practical exercises that range from mindful meditation to reframing a stressful situation.
In the meantime, if you know someone who deals with anxiety, consider responding to their anger with compassion. Emotions aren’t always what they appear to be at first glance. And if you frequently find yourself inwardly seething, you can always consider speaking with a professional about why you’re feeling that way. and perhaps receive help for it.