Emotional Effects

When Does Anxiety Turn to Anger?

Emma Loker, BSc Psychology

Written by

Emma Loker, BSc Psychology

Last updated April 13, 2022

When Does Anxiety Turn to Anger?

Anxiety and anger are normal; we all feel these natural human emotions. But we don’t necessarily associate them together until we experience the transition between the two.

Ever switched from anxiety to anger in a flash? Often, this rapid emotional shift can come as a surprise to you as well as your loved ones. So, why does anxiety turn to anger? And when does it switch?

What’s the Difference Between Anxiety and Anger?

Anxiety and anger are natural emotions we feel in response to threats. However, they involve different emotional experiences. Anxiety is a fearful feeling or sense of unease triggered by a perceived threat.

These psychological symptoms are often accompanied by physical ones, including sweating, nausea, dizziness, restlessness, sleep problems, and panic attacks. Heart palpitations and shortness of breath may also occur.

On the other hand, APA states that anger is frustration at a person, object, or situation. Anger often arises when we feel deceived, attacked, or treated unfairly. When someone is angry, they may clench their jaw and sweat profusely. Perhaps they’ll become flushed in the face and neck, suffer from a stomach ache, and experience an elevation in their heart rate.

How Are Anxiety and Anger Connected?

We can see that anxiety and anger have some similar physiological symptoms. But are there any further connections?

The simple answer is: yes. Sensing threats is a primal human process utilized throughout our history to ensure survival. Anxiety and anger are triggered by the body’s stress response, also known as the fight or flight response.

Fight or Flight Response

Sensing a threat sets off a whole host of bodily changes. First is the secretion of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, preparing us to fight back or run away. Then, activation of a branch of our nervous system causes our heart rate to increase, muscles to tense, pupils to dilate, and awareness to intensify.

This process has aided us time and time again. But now, we live in a world where we’re barely preyed upon. Most of our threats are perceived ones, not actual ones. However, our bodies still respond in the same way. When your body is ready to fight or flee with no physical danger present, you may feel various emotions:

  • Fear: This is the primary emotion we feel in response to a threat. This kicks our bodies into action, ready to respond to whatever comes our way.
  • Irritation: There’s a fine line between fear/anxiety and irritability. Stress can make you more prone to irritability, a feeling closely linked to anger.
  • Lack of control: Humans without any control are much like scared, cornered animals. And what does an animal typically do when it’s trapped? It bears its teeth. When humans experience a lack of control, we often respond with anger; we fight our way out of the corner.
  • Blame: When in a fearful or anxious state, some people automatically react by blaming others. They may say, “why did you do this to me?” or “how could you?” It may feel safer for them to tell themselves someone has caused their uncomfortable feeling.

When Does Anxiety Turn to Anger?

When anxiety isn’t acknowledged, it can quickly turn to frustration, taking on the form of anger. We do this because we think that we have more control over a fearful situation if we attack it with fury rather than become overcome with anxiety.

Anxiety disorder is more likely to result in anger than plain old anxiety because there’s a build-up of stress over a prolonged period. For example, someone with Social Anxiety Disorder may become frustrated with someone if they steer the anxious individual toward an uncomfortable social environment. Likewise, someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder may show anger if their routine is disturbed.

But does it ever happen the other way around, where anger triggers anxiety instead?

Anger to Anxiety, Not the Other Way Around 

It’s not just a one-way street. Stress can also arise because of or instead of anger, particularly when the individual has grown up in an environment where anger was unacceptable or where traumatic childhood experiences occurred.

This is called repressed anger and is associated with avoiding, denying, or pushing away feelings of frustration. You can view more information on the relationship between anxiety and anger here.

Managing Your Anxiety and Anger

Managing anxiety and anger on their own can be challenging, let alone when they work together! Left undealt with, these powerful emotions can affect many aspects of your life. Garofalo et al. (2016) demonstrate the link between anger and low self-esteem. While Zaider et al. (2016) highlight its detrimental effect on relationships.

You’ll need a two-pronged approach to control your anxiety symptoms and anger.

Controlling Your Anxiety

All of us get anxious; that’s a fact. But when anxiety negatively impacts your life, it’s time to do something about it. There are several lifestyle changes you can make:

  • Practice self-love: Spending time on yourself doing the things you love can help to shake off some of the built-up stress. Maybe listen to music, go dancing, or do some yoga.
  • Reduce alcohol and caffeine intake: Alcohol and caffeine make us more anxious. Reducing your intake may lessen your anxiety symptoms.
  • Exercise regularly: I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve heard exercise helps your health. Well, it reduces your anxiety, too!
  • Write a journal: Journaling is an excellent way to identify what triggers your anxiety. When you become anxious, jot down what caused this feeling. After a while, patterns will begin to emerge. 
  • Deep breaths: Taking deep breaths from your diaphragm helps control anxiety. The University of Toledo explains how deep breathing activates the nervous system area responsible for switching off the stress response and bringing you back to a relaxed state.
  • Talk to someone: Speaking to a close friend, relative, or mental health professional can help to ease the burden of anxiety.

For more information on anxiety and how to control your anxious feelings, click here.

Controlling Your Anger

Anger is a powerful emotion, so controlling it takes some time and effort. However, there are several things you can do to manage your anger. Let’s take a look:

  • Deep breaths: Like with anxiety, deep breaths help calm the body, allowing anger to dissipate and you to gain clarity on the present moment.
  • Sidestep drugs and alcohol: Harriet de Wit (2009) shows how these substances increase impulsivity, making anger and anxiety harder to control.
  • Speak to a close friend or relative: A problem shared is a problem halved. Talk to those close to you about your anger; they may be able to help.
  • Seek mental health support: A therapist or psychologist can support you in understanding why you get angry. You can work through your repressed anger so that it doesn’t continue to plague your relationships.
  • Practice assertiveness: There’s nothing wrong with anger; it’s a natural human emotion. The problem is the way it’s expressed. Practice being assertive rather than angry.

Final Remarks

Anxiety and anger’s connection is deep-rooted in our survival, both triggered by the body’s stress response system. Although quickly transitioning between anxiety and anger isn’t uncommon, it’s not particularly pleasant.

Managing these natural emotions is essential. Luckily, this can be done in many ways. Why not try speaking to someone close to you or a trained mental health professional? If that doesn’t float your boat, how about making a few lifestyle changes? 

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