The emotions of anxiety and anger are closely related. Both have a functional value, similar physiological reactions, and often co-occur. However, anxiety is an ongoing feeling of worry about a perceived threat, whereas anger tends to surface from an identifiable trigger and feels more intense. Exploring these emotions in detail can clarify their connection and how they’re best treated.
How Are Anxiety and Anger Connected?
Anger and anxiety are both defensive mechanisms with a bidirectional relationship, meaning anger can make anxiety worse, and vice versa. These high-arousal emotions trigger a chain of automatic physiological reactions that our body uses to defend and preserve us. If left untreated, they can both worsen over time, causing harmful effects to both physical and mental health.2
Anger and Anxiety Share Similar Physiological Symptoms
In the body, anger and anxiety can feel similar. With both anxiety and anger, the body goes into fight or flight mode. The body produces a great amount of cortisol and shuts down the part of the brain responsible for reasoning and logic. The overlap between anxiety and anger are so close that it can be hard to tell the difference in your body.
Anxiety and Anger Can Have the Same Psychological Roots
Anger and anxiety can have a lot of overlapping triggers. When someone is triggered by anxiety, they are looking to ward off any threat. Their body is responding to either real or perceived threats, so they can react with anger. Anger can be one manifestation of anxiety, while panic attacks can be another manifestation.
Irritability Can Be a Symptom of Anxiety
Irritability can be a symptom of anxiety. This irritability can cause someone to be short, ill-tempered, angry, and agitated.
People Often Feel Anxious About Their Anger
Some people dislike their short fuse and worry about the next time their anger will erupt. They could be nervously awaiting the next time their anger will emerge.
Anxiety Activates the Fight or Flight Response
Anxiety can make people fearful that they are in real danger, even if the situation seems harmless to others. This activation of the fight or flight response can cause people to lash out in an exaggerated form of self-defense.
People Can Feel Angry About Their Anxiety Disorder
It won’t be long before people with high anxiety begin to feel frustrated and annoyed about their condition. They will feel angry at the world, themselves, and their anxiety.
Can Anxiety Cause Anger?
Evidence shows that levels of anger are elevated across people with all types of anxiety disorders.1,2
A person who suffers from chronic anxiety has excessive preoccupations with stressors that can affect their sleep, causing them to become physically and emotionally depleted and more irritable than usual. Anger may become more severe when there is long-standing anxiety.
Also, anxiety may be a core emotional state underlying someone’s expression of anger. Unaddressed anxiety can increase feelings of frustration with oneself, which can then be expressed in a hostile, aggressive manner. Likewise, ignoring or suppressing anger can increase anxiety.
Key Differences Between Anxiety and Anger
While anxiety and anger have similarities and can sometimes feel the same, they are distinct. Some researchers suggest that anxiety is more closely related to the “flight” in flight-or-fight, whereas anger is associated with the “fight.” Anger usually emerges as an automatic response to confront anything that appears menacing, while anxiety develops into a pattern of avoidance of triggers that produce uncomfortable emotions.3,4,9
Anxiety is an innate response to situations we perceive as being an imminent danger or a threat to our comfort. In response to a stressor, it’s normal to experience moderate anxiety that dissipates once the issue is resolved. When the anxiety becomes unmanageable, persistent, and disproportionate, it can turn into a chronic mental condition, co-occur with other psychiatric disorders, and affect your health and wellbeing.3,5
Anger is an instantaneous response to a perceived attack or mistreatment. It can be detected by looking at someone’s facial expression, body language, or listening to their tone of voice. Some theorize that anger may be more taxing on our bodies and mental state than anxiety. That said, anger can be healthy. It can encourage us to assert our needs or motivate us to make important changes.
Research shows that people with unhealthy anger usually have a primary emotional condition like anxiety or depression. In such cases, self-regulating emotions becomes more difficult and symptoms worsen, becoming more difficult to treat1,2,3,9,11
Causes of Anger Anxiety
Anger anxiety is a multifaceted condition, so there will not be only one cause. Many situations and stressors can spark symptoms to emerge.
Build-Up of Irritation
The irritation connected to anxiety can be like steam. If there is not a healthy release, the pressure can grow, build, and escalate until there is an outburst. The outburst may seem to resolve the anger, but it only restarts the cycle.
Loss of Control
Some people with anxiety strive to keep very tight control over their situations, experiences, and feelings. Unfortunately, they can never have complete power over anything, so anger becomes their reaction.
Could the Anger Be Caused by Something Else?
Anger can be a problem because it has so many potential sources. Anxiety is one possible trigger of anger, but there are other mental health conditions and situations that could be responsible as well:
- Substance use, addiction, and withdrawal
- Mania linked to bipolar disorder
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Psychosis, including hallucinations and delusional thinking
- Grief and loss
- High stress
- Intermittent explosive disorder
Anyone questioning the source of their anger should be sure to speak to their mental health team or primary care physician about possible options for feeling better.
How to Deal With Anxiety and Anger Outbursts
There isn’t one perfect way to deal with anger and anxiety. The best a person can do is to take an honest and open look at their situation, their stressors, and their symptoms before taking time to experiment with lifestyle changes.
Here are eight ideas for what to do when you’re feeling anxious and angry:
1. Take a Timeout for a Few Minutes
When you are angry, it can be hard to stop yourself before taking an unhealthy action, but it is best to slow down and step away before you reach peak anger. Go outside, go into another room, isolate yourself for a few minutes to calm your nerves that are firing in all directions. Taking a break will also slow down your heart rate and blood pressure, which will let the body feel less threatened.
2. Physical Exercise (Outdoors Is Even Better)
Physical exercise is one of the best activities a person can do for their mental health. It is activating and restorative at the same time. Best of all, it does not need to be intense. A short walk outdoors can make a world of difference.
3. Challenge Anxious or Hostile Thoughts
Attacking the anger directly could be intimidating, but it is so rewarding. Take time to inspect your thinking patterns to find people, places, and things that trigger your anger, and then look for new ways of thinking that make the anger fade. Remember, being angry only hurts you, not them.
4. Distract Yourself With Something You Enjoy
Giving yourself a boost of dopamine can really help neutralize the anger and help you reset your emotions. Finding something you like, such as a favorite song, can be a great way to distract yourself.
5. Try Journaling
Journaling is a great practice. It helps you organize your thoughts and can feel good to get out the anger and anxiety. Journaling also helps you process your emotions through the art of writing and becoming more in tune with your feelings, and may help you understand where some of the anger comes from.
6. Mindfulness Practice
Mindfulness is the act of connecting to the present moment and using all of your senses to ground yourself in the near and now. Mindfulness is a great way to move past the anger of yesterday and the anxiety of tomorrow. Meditating can be a great way to calm angry thoughts.
7. Breathing Exercises
Breathing exercises and other relaxation techniques like autogenic training, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery will offer tremendous benefit on the journey towards less anger and anxiety. Practice and experiment with each option to find one that works well for you.
8. Get a Massage
Since many of us store our stress and anger in our body and muscles, and because so much of our body is used when we are in a state of anger, coming out of that state can be tough. Massages are a helpful way to work through and release tension.
When to Talk With a Doctor
Sometimes people can cope with anger and anxiety on their own, but there are some signs that someone needs additional treatment.
Contact your doctor if anxiety and anger are causing issues like:
- Impacting your day-to-day life
- Losing relationships and friends, jobs, etc.
- Harder to get out of a state of anger
- Easily angered at minor inconveniences
- Staying angry longer each time
- Experiencing the same conflicts over and over
Treatment for Anxiety & Anger
If your symptoms are interfering with your life or spiraling out of control, reach out to a medical professional. You can start by discussing your symptoms with a primary care doctor or seeking individual therapy through an online directory. This resource allows you to filter your preferences and particular needs to choose a therapist who can provide you with the appropriate treatment for your anxiety and anger management issues.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
The most widely used therapeutic approach for anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It works under the assumption that unhealthy thought patterns exacerbate anger and anxiety. Working with a mental health professional who is well-versed in CBT can help you identify what triggers anger, develop self-awareness, and notice distorting/negative thoughts that you can then reframe.4,5,9
Is There Medication for Anxiety and Anger?
Sometimes, especially in chronic cases, medication in combination with therapy can be necessary. There aren’t any specific medications for anger, but since it usually co-occurs with other mental conditions like anxiety, anxiety medication may be appropriate. Talk to your doctor or psychiatrist to determine your options and better understand what being on anxiety medication might feel like.4
It’s important to also talk to your doctor about the risks associated with any medication.
Anxiety and Anger Research
Research on the connection between anxiety and anger continues to be a work in progress, however there is emerging literature focusing on specific ways anger and anxiety are correlated.
Here are examples of studies on the connection between anger and anxiety:
- One study showed that patients with major depression accompanied by irritability who experienced recurrent anger attacks had significantly higher levels of anxiety and irritability as compared to those who did not have anger attacks. Conversely, this study also indicated that individuals with depression accompanied by irritability and anxiety were more likely to have bouts of anger attacks than those diagnosed with depression only.7
- Another study investigated the correlation between anger and anger attacks with depressive and anxious conditions and related clinical elements. It examined participants who had a diagnosis of clinical depression, an anxiety disorder, and both depression and anxiety. The findings concluded that trait anger and intense spells of irritability were most predominant among participants with comorbid depressive and anxiety disorders. Furthermore, individuals who were diagnosed with only one condition- depression or anxiety were found to be less inclined to anger.8
Final Thoughts on Anxiety and Anger Issues
Anger and anxiety are valid feelings, but if they seem to be lingering longer than usual or impacting your physical and mental health, consult with a mental health professional or reach out to a trusted friend or family member. With the appropriate tools and support, you can learn to redirect strong emotions in healthy and constructive ways.