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Why Anger Is Nothing More Than Repressed Anxiety

Anger is best perceived paradoxically as an “offensive defense” against anxiety.

Key points

  • In many ways, anxiety and anger are two sides of the same emotional coin, kindred states of “agitated unease.”
  • Anger arises when we feel compelled to intensify our efforts to reinstate the physical and emotional balance we’ve lost.
  • Anger, by drowning out anxiety, prevents you from healing it, because once it’s repressed, it is hard to access.
Source: Geralt/Pixabay

Experts have frequently underestimated the critical ties between anger and anxiety. But as counterintuitive as it may seem, in many ways, anxiety and anger are two sides of the same emotional coin.

In reaction to some perceived threat, they’re both, as Kaitlin Vogel notes, kindred states of “agitated unease.”

This post will briefly outline (1) how the two emotions are intimately linked, (2) how anger emerges to “rescue” a person from a much more discomfiting anxiety, and (3) which self-help methods have assisted individuals in avoiding the serious downsides of replacing apprehensive anxiety with truculent anger.

It all starts with perturbations in one’s nervous system. Something happens, and subconsciously an individual is reminded of something troublesome that occurred in the past—whether from their childhood and/or just the last half-hour. And almost immediately, the person is beset by a fight-or-flight reaction. Inasmuch as innate survival instincts are mobilized, they’re afflicted with disconcerting anxiety.

I employ the term anxiety here rather than fear, for in the present moment, no clear and present danger exists. They’re completely safe. No roaring lion, tiger, or 8-foot maniac is rushing toward them. Nor are they threatened with helpless abandonment—terrifyingly left alone without the physical, mental, or emotional resources to effectively deal with their surroundings.

Nonetheless, regardless of whether they realize it, deep down, it definitely feels that way.

Similarities and Dissimilarities Between Anxiety and Anger

Subject to a felt threat, people can’t but feel out of control. And in such instances, we’re all wired to produce adrenaline, the main neurochemical secreted in fight-or-flight situations. So it’s hardly coincidental that anger has been labeled “anxiety with a chemical kick”—or even “turbocharged anxiety.”

That is, organically, this fiery emotion manifests when we’re compelled to pump up our efforts to reinstate the physical and emotional balance (or homeostasis) that’s been lost. And frankly, most people would prefer to “mutate” their anxiety into anger, for at least anger creates the illusion of regaining control of the circumstance so unsettling to us.

Moreover, just thinking about the threat magnifies it. So thoughts themselves induce—and augment—adrenaline production.

Unless we can shift from our midbrain (our reflexive survival center—otherwise known as the sympathetic branch of our vagal nervous system) to our neocortical brain (our more highly evolved rational thinking center—neurologically identified as our ventral vagal state), we’ll cycle into an anxiety-exacerbated panic. Or, if it’s more in line with our genetic or environmental programming, vengeful anger.

Plus, whether we’re in the throes of anxiety or anger, the underlying psychological pain we’re enduring can correlate with physical pain. David Hanscom, M.D., points out that it’s our troubling beliefs about reality that generate “the same physiological response as physical threats.”

In fact, chronic pain and other physical conditions and diseases may be understood as resulting from, or being contributed to, by unresolved (and thus perseverating) stressful emotions. Habitually “attacked” from within by such steroidal hormones as cortisol, eventually, the body must succumb to their harmful influence.

Anger as the Double-Dealing “Savior” of Anxiety

Anger may best be appreciated as a pseudo-solution for the self-shaming that so often accompanies anxiety. Though it can conceal underlying anxiety, it never really obliterates it. And the enormous effort spent in covering up undesirable feelings entails unwanted neurological effects.

It’s something like “pay now,” by not banishing your torturous anxiety but constructively coping with it, or “pay later” by self-protectively burying anxiety through vindictive anger. Indirectly, it also explains why anger—along with obsessive-compulsive disorder, an alternative path for sidestepping anxiety—are such addictive, tough-to-remedy emotions.

And undoubtedly, it’s impossible to work through the stressful root emotion of anxiety when you can no longer access it.

Again, as Hanscom describes it, in anger:

The blood supply to the neocortex . . . is shunted to lower parts of the nervous system [to prepare you to do battle with the supposed enemy]. You are also throwing off inflammatory proteins called cytokines that directly inflame and sensitize your brain. You are offline and it is impossible to think clearly. You lose awareness of the needs of those around you, which is a step toward abusive behavior.

The reason anger is linked to abusiveness is that when you’ve assessed someone as unfair, ascribing abusive behavior to them, you feel totally justified in punishing them.

In most instances, however, they really haven’t done anything to deserve your hostility. It’s simply that blaming them allows you to transition from anxiety and self-doubt to the more comfortable, ego-flattering position of righteous indignation.

And unquestionably, a sense of moral superiority feels a whole lot better than the anxiety you experienced moments earlier. In truth, most people shift from anxiety to anger so lightning-fast that they never have to experience the far more distressing emotion.

Still, what’s a welcome relief ends up being burdensome—or alienating—to those victimized by your unruly outbursts. Your anger is offensive to them, despite its being (from your own emotionally wounded perspective) defensive since, in this highly charged state, you view yourself as the victim.

In sum, anger may be effective as a short-term solution for “vanquishing” anxiety, but longer-term it boomerangs, typically causing as much pain to you as it has for others. It can undermine or even destroy your relationships and culminate in ruinous effects on virtually every aspect of your existence.

Of all one’s self-sabotaging emotions, nothing quite compares to the impaired judgment and impulsive, reckless behavior typically associated with regularly leveraging anger to escape from more unpleasant emotions.

Treating, or “Defanging,” Anxiety-Defending Anger

Given space limitations here, I’ll simply enumerate a variety of methods that have succeeded in extending a person’s all-too-short fuse. By way of qualification, I should emphasize that if these methods are to be successful, individuals must be willing to take full responsibility for their anger and be sufficiently motivated to commit themselves to these self-help approaches.

Some resistance is to be anticipated, since till now, their anger has provided them with a sense of control and empowerment they’re generally not very eager to surrender.

Plus, these DIY techniques generally need to be repeated many times to take hold. And in many cases, significant improvement is achievable only through receiving the assistance of a professional highly experienced in treating unresolved trauma.

  • Learn ways to self-soothe and relax amidst inner agitation. And start by slowing down your breathing. Developing calming skills is essential if you’re to think more rationally.
  • Become more mindful. Refocus your attention on what, moment-to-moment, is going on in and around you. And that includes attending to sights, sounds, smells, tactile sensations—anything that will stop counter-productive rumination.
  • Exercise or engage in physical activity. Besides being a distraction, focusing on bodily movement can help moderate, or expend, the nervous energy fueling your anger.
  • Don’t permit yourself to act before you consider the repercussions. Ask yourself whether your so-tempting retaliative action is likely to make things better—or much worse. If you’re not ready to peaceably address another about your frustrations, diplomatically explain that, and (temporarily) leave the scene.
  • Replace your entrenched negative habits of denial, blaming, and rejection with the redeeming qualities of awareness, compassion, forgiveness, gratitude, acceptance, and love (tied to the rewarding, socially-bonding chemical oxytocin). Regrettably, this is much easier said than done. But again, it’s a matter of motivation, as well as cultivating greater self-discipline. And there are numerous Internet-accessible articles that can guide you here.
  • Reevaluate your self-protective pessimism or cynical attitude. You need to explore, then correct, the negatively distorted, exaggerated, or overgeneralized beliefs that may have derived from early trauma. Such examination must include a willingness to take into account other, more reasonable, or charitable interpretations of what happened to you.
  • Become more solution-oriented. Anger keeps you defensively focused on how others created your problems. Instead, refocus on what you can do to solve them.

© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


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