Anxiety often shows itself in unexpected ways. Contrary to popular belief, most Anxiety Sisters don’t feel “anxious;” instead, we have stomach distress or we feel our hearts beating fast or we may even feel like we are not fully in our bodies. Many of us have come to expect and accept these kinds of symptoms, but it is hard to fathom that angry outbursts can also be indicative of anxiety. If you are snapping at your co-workers, yelling (too much) at the kids, or experiencing weird rages at relative strangers, you could be expressing your anxiety as anger. In fact, we know Anxiety Sisters who have been labeled as having “anger management problems” (although, as women, if we express any anger at all, it is usually seen as a problem) at work. When we dug a bit deeper, we realized that what seemed like anger was actually deep-rooted anxiety.
At first glance, anger and anxiety appear to be opposite emotions. As an Anxiety Sister, I become fearful when I am spinning (panicking)—so much so that sometimes I cower under my covers while waiting for the feeling to pass. On the other hand, when I am expressing anger, I am no longer passive or cowering (just ask my husband). Anger is typically action-focused and connected to movement and strength. So it seems counter-intuitive that anger can actually be anxiety.
However, when we look at anxiety from an evolutionary perspective, anger makes total sense. Remember that anxiety is what ensured that our ancestors would survive. They lived in a world where being frightened easily meant that you had a lower chance of being eaten by a predator. Our ancestors who were hyper-vigilant were more tuned into ever-present threats. Their “anxiety” meant that they could fight or flee at a moment’s notice. Anger, which also stimulates adrenaline and gets us ready to act, is therefore also an adaptive mechanism.
Even in modern-day life, anger serves an important purpose. While aggressive anger can be hurtful, anxious anger can be full of compassion and empathy. We don’t yell at a child who runs across the street because we are mad at him/her. We yell because we are worried. Our anxiety in this way can be protective. In this case, our anger was fueled by anxiety, but we were anxious because of love. If we had let our anxiety freeze us or cause us to focus only on ourselves, the child would have been in danger.
Anxious anger can also let us know when our stress levels have gotten out of control. An Anxiety Sister who had angry outbursts at work was really overwhelmed by both her job and caregiving responsibilities at home. Her mind was always occupied with a million thoughts and a long to do list. Thus, when someone at work screwed up, she expressed anger because it was yet another mess she would have to clean up. This woman’s anxiety was so great that any small problem started to enrage her. That’s how she knew she had to make some changes in her too stressful life.
Another Anxiety Sister told us how she often snaps at her partner because of little sounds he makes. When we are anxious, our sensory systems often become overwhelmed. We are in the hyper-vigilant state that saved our ancestors but can drive a person in the modern world crazy. Some of us become sensitive to light, sound or touch during very anxious times. When someone enters our sensory space, our anxious self perceives this as a threat. This is how an innocent noise someone in our home is making or even a strong smell can unleash our rage. Those sensations are, in our anxious minds, threats, and our anger is protecting us against these threats.
Understanding how anger and anxiety are connected can really help in our quest to manage both. But just remember to be compassionate with yourself as you explore your feelings and reactions—getting angry at yourself will only intensify your anxiety and make you feel less in control of an already challenging situation. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out for help in dealing with anxious anger. This particular symptom can be effectively treated using short-term therapy.
Let us know if/how anger is connected to your anxiety…