Anger and anxiety are two sides of the same coin: agitated unease. These emotional states are closely intertwined but have key differences.
On the spectrum of emotions, some are distinctly different, while others are closely linked and frequently interact with one another. Anger and anxiety are two examples.
Anxiety is fear and unease due to a perceived threat that hasn’t yet happened.
Anger is reactive and occurs in response to a threat, but it’s often paired with a sense of feeling you or someone you observed being wronged.
These two emotions are fundamental in understanding how we handle stressful and dangerous situations. We can increase our self-awareness and emotional intelligence by learning about the role anxiety and anger play in our lives.
Though cause and effect haven’t been proven in research, anger and aggression can be rooted in anxiety.
Here’s what can happen from a physiological perspective: A person or event triggers us, and a stress signal is sent to the brain. If it’s a serious stressor, a defense mechanism can be activated.
The body goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode, causing the release of adrenaline and cortisol. Anxiety is experienced, and unease builds over what might happen next. If we don’t manage the anxiety, anger and aggression might soon follow.
Anger and anxiety might start physically in similar ways, but they culminate differently.
“Fight or flight is a biologically driven response that is here to protect us, however, can sometimes lead us to wrongly label situations as threatening,” explains Corey Connelly, a counselor out of Charlotte, North Carolina.
“When this instinct kicks in and riles up our heart rate and our breathing, it’s much more challenging to appropriately judge a situation, leading us to either exhibit fear [or] freeze and symptoms of anxiety (such as sweaty palms, panic, inability to communicate), or fight and symptoms of anger (clenched fists, yelling, and physical harm).”
The anxiety response of fighting is defensive while the anger response is offensive.
Is anger a symptom of anxiety?
Not necessarily. More like a sibling to anxiety. Unexpressed or unaddressed anxiety can lead to agitation because of symptoms, such as:
- inadequate sleep
- exhausting ruminating or catastrophic thinking
- a perceived inability to control the situation
Anxiety, like anger, lowers the threshold to tolerate everyday life events, which then may culminate in increased episodes of anger.
“While anger is the emotion we typically exhibit on the surface, there can be so many other feelings that are underneath,” says Connelly.
“For example, to a romantic partner, we may respond with anger, but what I’m actually feeling is, ‘I’m scared that you’re going to leave me.’ Showing anger oftentimes feels safer than opening up and being vulnerable about what we’re actually feeling.”
It’s also helpful to understand the difference between anger attacks and panic attacks.
Dr. Gregory Scott Brown is a psychiatrist and author of “The Self-Healing Mind.”
“While anger attacks aren’t an official diagnosis, and panic attacks are more clearly defined by mental health professionals (uncontrollable episodes of intense fear or loss of control that may be accompanied by physical symptoms like clammy palms, tunnel vision, or shortness of breath), symptoms of both anger and panic may be similar,” Brown says.
One difference, however, may be that usually, anger attacks are preceded by a thought, event, or situation that causes you to feel angry. You may find yourself dwelling over the source of your anger before an anger attack.
While sometimes panic attacks are predictable, often they’re not and can even creep up on you unexpectedly, Brown adds.
|reactive emotion (based on prior trigger)||anticipatory emotion (based on future uncertainty)|
|feeling wronged||feeling unprepared|
|activates adrenaline and cortisol||activates adrenaline and cortisol|
|can lead to feeling loss of control (dysregulated)||can lead to feeling loss of control (dysregulated)|
|physical symptoms: heart racing, shallow breathing, sweating, and more||physical symptoms: heart racing, shallow breathing, sweating, and more|
There are various anxiety disorders, including:
- generalized anxiety disorder — prolonged anxiety or worry (6 months or more), negatively affecting a person’s personal and professional life
- panic disorder — frequent, unexpected panic attacks
- social anxiety disorder — fear surrounding social situations and interactions
- agoraphobia — fear of two or more of the following: being outside of the home alone, open spaces, closed spaces, public transportation, crowds, and being in line
- separation anxiety disorder — fear of being separated from someone they are attached to, with the worry that harm will come to the other person when they are apart
- selective mutism — fear of speaking in certain social situations, typically occurring before the age of 5
Anger and aggression can take on many different forms. The disorders include:
- intermittent explosive disorder — random episodes of unwarranted anger
- oppositional defiant disorder — diagnosed in childhood, this disorder is characterized by uncooperative and hostile behavior toward authority figures
- disruptive mood dysregulation disorder — diagnosed in children, marked by frequent temper tantrums, irritability, and anger
Mental health conditions with aggression as a symptom
Mindfulness can be effective in treating anxiety and anger. Knowing where the emotion is showing up physically is the first step in learning to manage it.
“Being able to feel the first signs of anger or anxiety in our body physically helps us appropriately use the coping skills that we need to bring our emotions back down,” says Connelly. “The most important coping skill once you feel and recognize your anger is to first and foremost take some space.”
For instance, if there’s another person in the room, you might want to calmly separate yourself from the immediate stimuli, perhaps go outside.
Even if you’re feeling angry at your work desk over a frustrating email, you could get up and go to a separate room if possible. This may require you to communicate your need to get some space to regroup and cope effectively.
Engage in a distracting activity
Once space is taken, it’s helpful to find a distraction (short term) to get out of our thought cycles feeding the anger or anxiety.
“Playing a quick game on your phone, doing a crossword puzzle are good distraction techniques, but be mindful that once the emotion does not feel as overwhelming anymore, we need to explore it,” Connelly says. “For anxiety and panic attacks, taking space and utilizing distractions can be helpful as well.”
Tune into your senses
Grounding skills and using your senses to orient yourself to your environment are useful for anxiety.
“Once you register that you’re feeling anxious, trying to notice the space around you by identifying sights, sounds, smells can help bring the initial feeling of panic down a few notches,” says Connelly.
“If you can, trying to regulate your breathing can be effective coping for both anger and anxiety. As both these feelings trigger rising heart rate and breathing, similar coping skills often work across both,” she says.
Communicating how you’re feeling can help with anger and anxiety.
“Anger and anxiety (especially when it’s uncontrollable) can make you feel ashamed,” says Brown. “Talking to someone about what you are feeling is usually the first step to overcoming uncomfortable feelings anger and anxiety can produce.”
Like all emotions, becoming aware of how they affect us can significantly improve our overall well-being.
Anger and anxiety are two emotions that are closely connected, sometimes experienced in tandem.
Learning how to manage anxious anger can be pivotal. Practicing mindfulness, engaging in distracting activities while you calm down, and connecting to the present moment can help minimize anger and anxiety.
If you have a hard time managing your emotions, even after trying the techniques above, you may consider speaking with a mental health professional.