FREE MENTAL HEALTH ASSESSMENT. start here
If you’ve been feeling anxious and overwhelmed lately, there’s a chance that you’ve also noticed your fuse being a little shorter than usual. Has your temper been a little less tempered? Has your last nerve been spent? If this sounds familiar, you may be coming to the conclusion that there’s a connection between anger and anxiety you weren’t aware of.
We commonly see anxious people portrayed as overwhelmed, helpless and timid creatures, but the reality of anxiety disorders is far from what you see in cartoons. In fact, anxiety can make us feel a range of emotions.
For you or a loved one, anger might be one such emotion. The connection between anxiety and anger is a complicated one that may explain certain behaviors you recognize in yourself and others. To understand why this happens, you need to understand how these emotions are intertwined.
Anxiety is a well-known but often not well understood condition, and whether it’s social anxiety disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, the effects of anxiety are generally similar.
When we think of anxiety, we think of some of the more well-known symptoms: shortness of breath, chest pain, dizziness, sweating, hot flashes, chills, nausea, diarrhea, shaking or trembling.
The mental and physical symptoms of anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety do vary from person to person, but most often, there are commonly found symptoms in the group.
Cognitive symptoms like fear of injury or death, intrusive thoughts or mental images, poor attachment or perception of reality and confusion are all common symptoms.
You may also experience emotional dysregulation, where a negative emotion can essentially overwhelm your cognitive abilities.
Anger, meanwhile, can mean a lot of things, but we’ll take it to mean those angry feelings and the violent, verbal or physical outbursts that occur with the intent to cause harm.
On this point, it’s important to note that mood disorders and emotional disorders — like depression, anxiety, antisocial personality, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder — are known to cause symptoms of ang
Here’s where it gets interesting. There are several known causes of increased aggression, from medical diseases and hormonal imbalances to substance abuse and misuse, and even forms of neurological change like those seen in Alzheimer's disease.
One more potential cause, however, is the relative imbalance of certain neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine.
And the same is true of anxiety: serotonin and dopamine are important mediators of anxiety and fear in the central nervous system, and imbalances can lead to anxiety symptoms.
Before we go any further, we need to point out that, while anxiety and anger have some significant correlations, there’s no scientific proof that we could find chronic anger being a cause of anxiety, nor of anxiety disorder definitively leading to anger or aggression.
You are not predestined to get one or the other based on a positive ID of the other one.
What you do get, however, is an increased risk of both — though it’s hard to tell how much that risk actually increases.
If there’s a straightforward link between anxiety and anger, it’s in one well-documented symptom of anxiety disorders: irritability.
No, anger and irritability are not the same thing. But human perceptions can easily confuse the two — someone might appear angry when they’re actually in an anxious state and experiencing or expressing irritability.
Experts point to a few recent studies that have examined the interaction between anger and anxiety, and they have found that heightened anxiety leaves us more vulnerable to anger.
Anxiety can create the ideal conditions for angry outbursts, especially when it’s found alongside depressive disorders or other mood disorders (which affect the same serotonin and dopamine levels we mentioned earlier).
From a far-away view, however, it’s important to consider the difference between adults with anxiety (and other mental disorders), and childhood anxiety disorders.
A previous study in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Counseling found a strong link between expressions of anger or maladaptive anger regulation in those who were experiencing childhood anxiety disorders, suggesting that children who don’t know how to handle anxiety may express it with anger.
The question of anger leading to anxiety is a little less straightforward than the reverse, unfortunately — the evidence of an association between mood disorders and anger is less certain.
Evidence that anger leads to anxiety is far from conclusive, and just because two things are associated doesn’t mean they’re correlated.
One example of how anger might lead to anxiety is that, as a person sees the consequences of their behaviors, they may feel resentment or embarrassment, which can often lead to anxious thoughts.
But anxious thoughts and anxiety are far from the same thing — it takes a recognized pattern of anxious symptoms interfering with your quality of life to actually qualify as a disorder.
Speaking of “far from correlated,” here’s a case-in-point question: does anxiety make everyone angry? Hardly.
Every timid, overwhelmed anxiety sufferer isn’t out there screaming or abusing their friends and family, even when they feel backed into a corner or dysregulated — many people with anxiety disorders and panic disorders never become violent towards anyone.
Treating anger is about more than motivational memes and mantras — those can be helpful as part of a larger plan, but anger itself may take therapy and practice to learn to control. The symptoms of anger can be dangerous, and when someone experiences difficulties in emotion control, they can often be a danger to themselves or others.
Interestingly, that’s one of the clearest commonalities it shares with anxiety: how it’s best treated. And, as you may expect, it’s best treated with the oversight and guidance of a mental health professional.
Anxiety isn’t a condition that gives the sufferer a sense of self-control or sense of autonomy, regardless of whether anger is involved. In fact, anxiety as a disorder is really about the uncertainty (and the negative feelings about it) surrounding things we can’t control.
Learning to control that fear of uncertainty is the only way to control anxiety, and may take something like cognitive behavioral therapy. Medication may also be beneficial — but if you’re suffering from an anxiety or anger issue, the first step is talking to a mental health professional or health care provider about these problems.
If you’re in a relationship with someone who can’t control their anger, the most important thing for you to worry about is the safety of yourself and other loved ones. Helping the person who needs help can and should come second after that.
And if you’re someone who has difficulty controlling anger, seeking treatment for it should be paramount.
Professional treatment can have powerful effects on anger and anxiety, and it can help people suffering from anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder and other similar mood disorders to reduce the frequency of anger attacks and suppress the expression of anger. But all of this is going to take time and practice.
To achieve new levels of anger suppression, you may need someone to help you chart a path. Treatment of anger isn’t an overnight exercise, and frankly nor is the treatment of anxiety.
Big picture: whether you or a friend or loved one is suffering from anxiety, anger or other dysfunctional emotions, it may be time to start that conversation.
Whether you’re looking for help with your own issues or someone else’s, you have support.
Consider reaching out to one of our support professionals today.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.
Start your mental wellness journey today.