Are you Angry? Or Anxious?

Are you Angry? Or Anxious?

Anxiety and anger are two distinct emotions that provide us information about ourselves and our environment. While they are different, there are several ways that they can interact.

Anxiety is the worry or fear that is felt in response to a perceived threat. The hallmark symptoms are: bodily tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes. Anxiety is often in response to feeling out of control. While too much anxiety can be paralyzing, studies show that mild to moderate anxiety can sometimes serve as a catalyst for making a change or getting things done.

Anger is an emotion that is typically in response to the perception that someone or something has caused unfairness or harm. It can be oriented towards others or ourselves. There is a host of research that has examined the negative impact of prolonged anger on health and well being.

Both anger and anxiety can cause the body to be on “high alert.” These emotions trigger similar stress hormones, namely cortisol and adrenaline, that are meant to help a person fight or flee.

Physical symptoms that can occur during both anxiety and anger include:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Clenched or tight muscles
  • Waves of heat through the body
  • GI symptoms, such as upset stomach

Given that fact that these emotions can produce very similar physical symptoms, it is sometimes not obvious whether we are experiencing anger or anxiety.

Let’s look at an example.

Imagine you are driving along the highway on your way to an important job interview. Suddenly, a truck swerves into your lane and cuts you off. You experience several of the above symptoms including rapid heart rate, tight muscles, and waves of heat throughout your body. Once you change lanes and determine you are safe, you identify the emotion of intense anger. Many people would feel the same. But in this situation, is it possible that your very first emotional reaction was actually anxiety triggered by fear when you were cut off?

Why might it be important to understand that anxiety and anger can be linked in this way?

One of the most important reasons researchers study the link between anger and anxiety is that correctly identifying which emotion we are feeling is a vital first step in deciding how to respond.

In the example above, if you identify anger as the significant emotion, you may be inclined towards retaliation or road rage. But if you identify anxiety as the emotion, you may decide to pull over and take a break to calm down before heading to your appointment.

Understanding the relationship between anxiety and anger can be a helpful first step in trying to untangle these emotions in the moment.

Have you noticed the similarities between these two emotions in your life?