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When Anxiety Doesn’t Look Like Fear
Everybody is unique. We know this, we are taught this from a young age. And yet, we somehow assume that with mental illness everyone will experience it the same way.
Anxiety can present itself in many different ways, so it’s not easy to tell when you’re looking at a normal array of emotion, or someone struggling to keep it together. Some people have a general anxiety that they are easily able to control, others experience social anxiety that prevents them from doing certain things – some people need rigid structure in order to stay calm.
For Heidi, her anxiety looked like anger. She was diagnosed with anxiety and depression in her teens but didn’t realize how her anxiety often presented itself until she was an adult. For her, having anxiety wasn’t just about feeling fearful or worried — it often looked like a short temper or sudden mood change.
Sometimes Anxiety looks like anger
Anger is not considered a symptom of anxiety. However, anxiety affects a person in different ways — so some emotions may not be a symptom of anxiety, but rather a by-product.
“Anger and anxiety are generally regarded as different emotional experiences with some overlap,” says Dr. Melane Badali, a registered psychologist and board director at AnxietyBC. “[Both anxiety and anger] have unique and common biological, cognitive, and social features.”
Badali goes on to say “Anger is usually connected to some type of frustration [and] anxiety is usually connected with an overestimation of a threat and an underestimation of their ability to deal with that threat.” According to Joshua Nash, anger can be a result of not directly dealing with your anxiety. Nash wrote an article in 2014 that dealt with anxiety and anger specifically, and he says “The point of my article was to show that anger is usually the emotion that people might identify at the moment, but that another emotion (anxiety for example) might be ‘underneath’ the anger, so to speak,” Nash further explains. “You won’t know anxiety underlies your anger until you’ve 1) fully felt the emotion first and then 2) introspected sufficiently to determine that the cause of your emotional upset was something you were afraid of.”
When does Anxiety look like anger?
According to Dr. Eilenna Denisoff (The clinical director of CBT Associates in Toronto), there are several situations in which a person with anxiety can exhibit anger as a result. For example, if a person with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) were to follow a very strict routine, any disruption in the routine could send them spiralling into anxiety — and that would often result in anger. “When that gets activated, they will respond in a way to try to convince other people to follow their ritual, and if they don’t, they get angry,” says Denisoff.
Another reason that someone could get angry as a result of anxiety is if they are scared or worried about something, they may turn to anger as a way to feel more in control. Denisoff states that in relationships, someone with social anxiety may purposely start arguments with their partners as a means to get out of social obligations.
“We all have anxiety systems that are natural and normal, but when it interferes with their quality of life, work or relationships, you need to do something about it.” Says Nash, he also states that ignoring it is the worst option. “Unprocessed anger can also lead to medical issues and most especially relationship issues. Unaddressed anger festers in the body and mind. It sits there waiting to be unleashed. [When it] does get unleashed, [it causes] chaos in the person’s life and/or leads to addiction issues.”
Managing your Anxiety and Anger:
Dr. Badali says that there are three things you can try to help with your anxiety and anger:
1: Challenge your thoughts.
Use rational or balanced thinking to evaluate your thoughts. Often, when you’re experiencing one emotion the underlying emotion is a lot simpler to solve. For example, when you’re feeling angry or anxious, it’s likely that you’re actually feeling frustrated or threatened. Balanced thinking will help you balance your view of the world, so you don’t only focus on the bad.
2: Choose to relax and be mindful.
Try calm breathing or meditation. There are many apps available to help you — because focusing your mind is really hard when it’s racing 200 miles a minute. Dr. Badali urges, “Don’t expect these to change your emotions when you are already anxious or angry. Think of them like — exercise, start practicing them daily, you will see your skills building over time.”
3: Think before you do — or better yet, just don’t do.
When you’re feeling irritable and want to lash out, stop yourself. Think about what you want to do, and whether or not it will help or hinder the situation. Ask yourself if this is something that will make you feel good now, but ashamed later.
At the end of the day, you don’t just want to “cope” with your anxiety, you want to understand it as best you can and deal with it directly. “When we learn to connect directly with our anxiety, it doesn’t morph into anger, so there’s no anger to ‘cope with.’ Instead, we fully admit the fear we’re feeling and address it head-on.” Says Nash.
There are many options for managing anxiety, some of which are listed above. However, if you struggle with severe anxiety — you don’t have to do it alone! Get help, talk to your doctor, or take medication if you need to. And have grace for yourself or the anxious person in your life. Anxiety is a journey, and you can try and try, but sometimes you might snap for no apparent reason. That reason is probably anxiety, so try to be patient.
When Anxiety Presents as Anger, Not Fear
When anxiety turns into anger, experts say you shouldn’t ignore it
The 7 Main Types of Anxiety – The Anxiety Guide
Anger – The Hidden Anxiety Emotion