How Do Anger and Anxiety Interact?
Recognizing how anger and anxiety interact can help diminish suffering.
Posted Apr 11, 2020
While anger and anxiety are two distinct emotions, like all emotions they provide us with information about ourselves—if only we can take time to listen to them. And, while distinct, they can interact in a variety of ways that may exacerbate anxiety, anger, or both.
Anger is an emotion characterized by antagonism toward someone or something we perceive as responsible for our suffering. It is most often past-oriented—about something that we believe “should” have happened or something we believe should not have happened.
When destructive, anger can impair our health and relationships, undermine a career and contribute to substance abuse. When constructively managed, it can help fuel our capacity to assertively express ourselves and provide us the motivation to correct a wrong.
Anxiety is marked by bodily tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes. Quite often, anxiety is a reaction to not feeling in control of oneself and or one’s surroundings. Anxiety is most often about the future, encompassing free-floating tension about something happening even when it is ill-defined.
Anxiety is often at the foundation of being emotionally avoidant—suppressing and repressing our emotions. Such avoidance is an attempt to escape the discomfort of such feelings such as anger, anxiety, shame, guilt, and inadequacy. This is especially the case when these feelings are a challenge to our self-esteem.
However, anxiety can be beneficial as it can motivate us to address concerns that are important to us—with regard to improving our emotional and physical well-being. Too much can be paralyzing, while too little can inhibit taking action.
The physical impact of anger and anxiety
Both anger and anxiety cause our body to be physiologically in "high alert." However, anger arousal is most often due to a specifically identified threat, while anxiety may have no such target.
During states of anger breathing, and heart rate increase, as does blood pressure. Chronic anger correlates with cardiac disease, high blood pressure, and even backache.
When severe, anxiety may be accompanied by physical symptoms that might include sweating, trembling, increase blood pressure, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, and an overall sense of feeling disoriented. Chronic anxiety can exacerbate illnesses such as heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, and respiratory illness and, while not causing them, act. on the same systems that these illnesses target.
Self-judgment and the interaction of anger and anxiety
As emphasized in Buddhist psychology, life entails pain due to circumstances we cannot control. However, we create additional suffering as a result of the thoughts we have about our pain. We clearly do this when we critically judge ourselves for having anger or anxiety.
As such, while these emotions are themselves a reaction to some perceived threat, simply experiencing anger or anxiety may, in itself, become a source of threat. Consequently, our judgment may only heighten the intensity of such emotions as well as promote their interaction. We may do this in the following manner.
1. We might become angry with ourselves for being anxious.
Shame is often the outcome of experiencing anxiety when we’ve come to view ourselves as being weak or inadequate for being anxious. Such shame can encompass anger that is directed inward. And while judgment may originate with shame, it is a form of shaming. This reaction reflects the interactions of experiences in which feeling anxious leads to shame that leads to anger, which leads to shame—which makes us more vulnerable to anger or anxiety.
2. We may become anxious when feeling anger.
Experiencing some anxiety about our anger can be a good thing. It may help motivate us to cultivate that pause, which is essential to constructively reflect on our anger—the feelings behind it, as well as expectations and knee-jerk conclusions that may promote it. Such pause allows us to respond rather than react to our anger.
However, some of us may experience vague and puzzling anxiety the moment any semblance of anger begins to percolate from the depths of our awareness—from our unconscious and to our conscious awareness. This may be the case especially when we find anger frightening, are conflict avoidant, have concerns about our own impulse control and have learned to renounce our anger.
Research regarding the interaction of anger and anxiety
Research in recent years has focused on finding more specific ways in which anger and anxiety interact. One study concluded that being prone to anger was often associated with experienced anxiety (Jha, Fava, et. al., 2020). Additionally, it showed that those with depression, accompanied by irritability and anxiety, were more likely to have anger attacks than those with just depression alone.
Another study explored the relationship between anger and anger attacks and depressive and anxiety disorders and relevant clinical factors (de Bles & Rius, et. al., 2019). This study involved patients diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and both. Those who experienced both depression and anxiety were found to be most prone to experience anger and anger attacks. Those who were just anxious and then those who were just depressed reflected a decreasing propensity to anger.
Additionally, a recent study suggests that those with cluster headaches have a higher degree of trait versus state anger (an ongoing disposition vs momentary and situational reactivity) that contributes to cluster headaches rather than chronic migraines (Bausa & Cevoli, et. al., 2019).
As I indicated in a previous post (November 2019), an insecure attachment style leaves us vulnerable to anger. Specifically, however, anxious and avoidant attachment styles can have a specific impact on anxiety as well as anger.
One study had subjects complete questionnaires assessing attachment, emotional dysregulation and suppression, depressive, and social anxiety symptoms and aggressive behavior (Clear, Gardner, et. al., 2019). It found that greater difficulty in managing sadness was associated with depression and social anxiety but not aggression. By contrast, greater difficulty with anger was associated with aggressive behavior but not depression and anxiety.
This is consistent with what I’ve observed in my practice that anxiety alone may create an experience of a “freeze,” like the proverbial deer in the headlights. By contrast, all too often, many individuals who are prone to act out their anger, either verbally or physically aggressive, are acting out from a depressive core.
Resilience when experiencing anger or anxiety
We are most resilient when we are open to recognize and accept the full range of our feelings without judgment. This calls for cultivating our capacity for self-soothing and self-compassion as a response to our anger or anxiety. It is a challenging task that entails learning to pause and be mindful of the inner voice that informs how we experience these emotions. And when we enhance our capacity to sit with, honor, and manage our anger and anxiety—we expand our resilience for dealing with life’s challenges.
Jha, M., Fava, M., Minhajuddin, A., et. al. (2020). Anger attacks are associate with persistently elevated irritability and moderate depressive disorder. Psychological Medicine Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291720000112.
De Bles, J, Ruis, O., Van Hemert, A., et. al.(2019). Trait angere and anger attacks in relation to depressive and anxiety disorders. Journal of Affective Disorders, 259-265. . https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2019.08.023
Bausa, M., Cevoli, S., Gianinni, G., et. al. (2019). State and trait anger and its expression in cluster headache compared with migraine: A cross-sectional study. Neurological Sciences, 40(11), 2365-2370.
Clear, S., Gardner, A., Webb, H., et. al. (2019). Common and distinctive correlates of depression, anxiety, and aggression: Attachment and emotion regulation of sadness and anger. Journal of Adult Development.