Did you know that anger and anxiety can actually look quite similar?
Mixed Emotions: Anger and Anxiety
Anger and anxiety are both very powerful emotions.
Anger is a very natural response to hurt and pain, such as injustice or betrayal. We all experience anger – whether it be overpowering rage, or something less intense such as frustration at someone cutting you off in traffic.
It is only when we react aggressively or threateningly to others that anger can become an issue.
When asked what anger feels like, many will describe increased heart rate and blood pressure, shaking, and feeling out of control.
Sound familiar? These signs sound just like the “fight or flight” response we get when we are scared or nervous! When we are experiencing anxiety, we have an automatic physiological response that makes us feel weak, sweaty, with racing thoughts and heart rate, butterflies or nausea, and an all over tightness.
So if this is anxiety, how is anger different? Anger can manifest in:
- Yelling or screaming;
- Saying hurtful things;
- Kicking or punching people or walls;
- Heavy breathing and frantic eye movements;
- Difficulty putting sentences or arguments together;
- Smashing objects.
All of these behaviours are generally uncontrollable, and are not what we would call the “smart option.” So why do we do them? It is all part and parcel of our body’s “fight” response.
Flee, Fight or Freeze?
When experiencing strong anxiety we have an uncontrollable urge to flee, fight or freeze. We flee when we avoid the feared task (labelled an anxiety disorder), though for some the fight response comes more naturally. Unfortunately these actions are seen as aggressive and so are more often than not labelled as anger rather than anxiety.
When anxiety builds up in our bodies, it eventually needs to discharge, like a volcano. As we get hurt, we get angry; as we get angry, we get anxious; and that anxiety may build up if it isn’t emptied along the way, or we are unable to escape the situation prompting the emotions. Like filling a glass of water, when it reaches overflow we discharge the anxiety in unhelpful ways. For some people it will discharge as nervous laughter, fidgeting, crying or fleeing the situation; for others the anxiety will discharge in an aggressive act such as yelling or punching.
The commonality between these actions is the uncontrollability – anxiety does not come with a pause switch as it is an inbuilt system controlled by the autonomic nervous system (that’s right, automatic) and fuelled by adrenaline (which will get your heart pumping!).
So when we have intense anxiety building inside, we become more primitive creatures. In fact, the frontal lobes of our brain (which is our “thinking selves”) become harder to access which is why we may use behaviours such as punching walls which we would never do if able to think rationally (as we end up with a sore hand and wall that needs fixing!).
Is Your Anger Showing Up as Anxiety?
Well the anxiety must be there for a reason! Anxiety is an automatic response to a dangerous stimulus. If you are getting anxious in a situation where anger should be, perhaps the anxiety is responding to you! In working with Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP) we look closely at your emotional experience and how your body uses anxiety to suppress emotions such as anger – so instead of getting the emotion of anger, your body becomes increasingly anxious and may discharge this anxiety as aggressive acts.
The Difference Between Anger and Anxiety
If you are feeling the physical signs of anxiety (eg tension, shaking, heart racing) and an uncontrollable urge to do something about these feelings, then chances are it is anxiety.
If you’re calmly experiencing a hot burn inside without an uncontrollable urge to act, you have anger!
Helpful, evidence-based treatments for management of anger currently focus on:
- Restructuring thoughts and “thinking” more through situations, and teaching relaxation strategies to manage the anxiety, using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT);
- Learning to accept emotions and let go of unhelpful thinking styles which lead to getting “stuck” on anger/anxiety, through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT);
- Exploring your emotional self, understanding the role of anxiety in controlling emotions and restructuring how you see yourself and your emotions through ISTDP.
If you are experiencing strong anxiety over the anger and have regular incidents of aggressive behaviour, rewiring your emotional self through treatment may help give you freedom from feeling out of control, strong regret and the label of “anger issues.” If you are interested to learn more about treating anger differently, please make an appointment to see me.
Author: Dr Rose Gillett, B Psych (Hons), D Psych (Clin), MAPS.
Rose Gillett is a clinical psychologist, working with children, adolescents, adults and couples. She is passionate about helping her clients achieve their goals, and has particular interest areas in attachment concerns in adults and young people, PTSD, and alcohol and drug addiction
To make an appointment with Clinical Psychologist, Rose Gillett, try Online Booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.