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The Surprising Emotion Behind Anxiety

Failing to recognize and express anger increases stress and health problems.

“Usually when people are sad, they don't do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.” —Malcom X

We rarely associate anger with anxiety because chronic worriers tend to be kind, polite, responsible, high-achievers, people-pleasers, and overly self-critical. Beware the conscientious exterior in yourself or others, because anger is a primary emotion underlying anxiety.

Peter John Maridable/
Source: Peter John Maridable/

Let’s start with the physical manifestations.

Anger is a powerful emotion, and if not handled appropriately, serious health consequences can ensue. According to research published by the American Psychological Association, anxiety and anger have been proven to be hazardous to health:

“These ‘terrible twos’ increase vulnerability to illnesses, especially upper respiratory illness; compromise the immune system; increase lipid levels; exacerbate pain; and increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and from all sources of death.”

And a study from Concordia University shows that for millions of sufferers of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), anger is more than an emotion; it’s a conduit that intensifies anxiety. Specifically, when the anger is internalized rather than expressed—think seething inside without showing it.

If this information leaves you feeling confused or doubtful, not to worry, the anger-anxiety connection is rarely linear. “Why would someone who avoids conflict and doesn't like getting mad be an angry person?” is a common query. And it’s a great question. But first, let’s proceed with the societal rules. In general, we don’t reward anger.

Many children are taught from an early age that anger is mean, impolite, rude, hot-headed and out-of-control behavior.

When adults are afraid of their anger (and that’s a hint) they tend to repress their emotions. But you can only deny feelings for so long because eventually, all feelings go somewhere. Acting “as if” the situation or person at hand did not upset you is to deny your authentic emotional state and to potentially set off a ticking time bomb. Kids model what they are taught at home, so if Mom or Dad didn’t own their feelings and subsequent behavioral reactions, what lessons are passed along?

Basically, uncomfortable feelings are not to be expressed, acknowledged or validated. This can lead to confusion, shame, and a sense of unworthiness.

After all, if Johnny or Sara can’t communicate their anger when the school bully smashed their lunch or laughed when they read aloud, they must have done something to provoke this unwanted behavior. In time, Johnny and Sara internalize that they are somehow broken or defective. Complicating matters is the fact that their feelings of humiliation and rage do not just disappear.

Transitioning to adulthood and a lifetime spent in emotional-expression limbo means adopting unhealthy coping skills. For example, hyper-vigilance (if your parents didn’t provide a safe container for your feelings, who can you trust?), dependence on others' approval, a lack of trust in the safety of the world, in others, and in yourself, chronic self-doubt, and pleasing others so they don’t reject you, as your parents did.

A psychological breakthrough occurs when you recognize that your greatest fears around anger expression likely center around the following:

1. If you're allowed to unleash the torrent of pent-up rage, there's a good chance of causing irreparable physical or psychological damage to others.

2. You will no longer be liked or loved by those around you.

While there's no quick-fix or one-size-fits-all way to manage anger, the following steps can help you experience less anxiety around getting mad:

1. Feel your feelings. Because you weren’t taught to handle anger, it’s important to allow yourself the time and the space to stew in emotional upset. Sometimes the goal is not to "fix" the problem, but to learn to sit with uncomfortable feelings.

2. Normalize anger. Anger is not a "bad" emotion, and it can certainly be an appropriate response to injustice. It may also lead to more favorable outcomes in business negotiations as well as an increased motivation to change what’s wrong with your life and with the world.

3. Assess when to confront and when to walk away. Developing firm and consistent boundaries will help you decide when it’s wise to stand up to the person or situation which upset you, or whether it’s best to avoid conflict. Pay close attention to your thought process so you remain in the here and now. Mindfulness-based practices are beneficial for catching yourself before you react through a distorted lens of past experiences. Anxious minds are uncomfortable with uncertainty, so avoid the trap of catastrophic thinking when waiting on an answer.

4. Come to terms with childhood wounds. This is a tall order, for sure. While your parents may have mistreated you, they are not living your life right now. Viewing yourself as a victim will not allow you to focus on your strengths or accomplish your goals. Therapy can help you reframe negative core beliefs and heal from past events.

5. Learn that you teach people how to treat you. When you’re upset, you have a right to your feelings. If others don’t support you in the way you want or need, let them know. Just remember, your response is your responsibility.

The key to effective anger management is knowing how to express anger at the right time, in the right amount, and to the right people. Doing so can mean you'll sleep better at night, too.

Copyright 2016 Linda Esposito, LCSW

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