Anxiety and anger: Why can anxiety make you angry?
When most people think of anxiety, they might imagine worry, doubt, maybe even fear. But the experience of anxiety can be even more varied—and unpredictable—than that. For some people, anxiety means anger—intense bouts of it. While this anxiety symptom can feel uncomfortable and confusing, it’s not uncommon.
Here, we explore the connection between anxiety and anger, and walk you through exactly how to control this challenging symptom.
How are anxiety and anger related?
Anxiety triggers both psychological and physical symptoms. The more common include persistent fear and worry (often out-of-proportion to the situation at hand), overthinking situations and focusing on worst-case-outcomes, and restless or an inability to relax.
Beyond these, however, symptoms of anxiety may also include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Nausea or gastrointestinal problems
- Fatigue or trouble sleeping
- Twitchiness or trembling
- Rapid heart rate and/or hyperventilation (shortness of breath)
Irritability is a state of agitation or frustration which can lead to feelings of anger, so if you find yourself feeling angry during or after a period of anxiety, don’t be surprised. Unfortunately, the cycle can be self-fulfilling. Because just as anxiety can contribute to a feeling of anger, anger can also make your anxiety worse, particularly if you’re worried about experiencing future angry outbursts.
Why do you feel angry when you’re anxious?
Different theories exist to explain the connection between anxiety and anger. Some researchers believe that these feelings of anger might be an automatic protective mechanism, meant to defend the brain against the more distressing feelings of anxiety.
Because while anxiety can feel lonely, self-shaming, and torturous, anger leaves little room for these unpleasant emotions.
On the other hand, the connection may boil down to chemicals: specifically, a process in the body called the “fight or flight” response.
How can the fight or flight response lead to anger?
Both anxiety and anger are a result of the body’s switch into “fight or flight” mode. When your body perceives a threat, it will often react by activating the sympathetic nervous system, a network of nerves that trigger changes in your body (think: increased heart rate, blood pressure, alertness).
This reaction releases cortisol, among other hormones, and is meant to protect you from immediate danger and perceived threats.
But the sympathetic nervous system doesn’t just trigger physiological changes in response to a threat—it can stir up emotional changes as well. Those emotional changes? Excitement, edginess, and—you guessed it—irritability and anger.
How do you cope with anger outbursts?
If you’re finding yourself experiencing frequent outbursts of anger that you think might be related to anxiety, you’re not alone. And although anger can often feel impossible to conquer, there’s actually some proven, evidence-based anger management tools and strategies that can help tame your mood and get you back to feeling at ease.
Get some exercise
A tried and tested way of relieving anxiety is exercise. Regular exercise can help you manage and lower stress, which can prevent the anxiety-anger spiral from starting up in the first place.
It may also help in the moment. Diverting yourself with, say, a brisk walk in a moment of intense anger can help you process through your feelings in a non-destructive way.
Listen to music
When you’re angry or anxious, relaxation is the name of the game. Deep breathing exercises, gentle movement, meditation, and listening to soothing music can all help shift your body back into a parasympathetic state—that is, activate the nerves that keep you calm and relaxed. It can also help distract you from angry thoughts.
Relaxing music not cutting it? Try listening to heavy metal—really. One study found that when angry people listened to heavy metal, it resulted in an increase in positive emotions, not negative ones. Researchers speculated that listening to music that matches your current emotional state may help you process through anger.
Respond, don’t react
They may sound like the same thing, but responding and reacting represent two very different types of behavior. Reacting to something someone says or does is instantaneous, a knee-jerk comeback that can be more adrenaline than logic. And as most people know, it’s easy to snap at someone when we feel angry.
Responding, however, allows some time to process. If you’re in the middle of an anxiety-anger spiral and your partner says something to comfort you, try to take a moment before you offer a frustrated or angry reaction. You could try a quick breathing exercise—like inhaling slowly through your mouth for a count of four, holding your breath for a count of seven, and exhaling for a count of eight.
During that time, try to think about what their goal is—to help you!—and give yourself a moment before you answer them. Not only will it help you calm down, it may help your relationship, too.
Count to 10
It’s tried-and-true advice for a reason. Sometimes, when we’re in the throes of anger, what we need most is a time-out. Removing yourself from whatever situation you’re in—whether that be by leaving the room or simply taking a moment to yourself to count to 10—can help reduce your anger and move you to a calmer state.
What if coping methods aren’t enough?
If you’re finding that your anxiety or your anger issues are becoming hard to manage— specifically, if you find either is regularly interfering with your daily life, including your work and/or relationships—it may be time to seek professional help. It’s possible that an underlying anxiety disorder, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, or panic disorder, or other mental health condition, like bipolar disorder, may be affecting your emotions.
Only a mental health professional can diagnose an anxiety disorder or other underlying condition and give you additional information relevant to your specific needs. While it might be tempting to self-diagnose (or even self-treat!), it’s important to remember: you deserve access to professional care and treatment. Treatment options depend on the underlying condition, and may include medication, talk therapy (including cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT), or a mix of both.
With Talkiatry, you can see a psychiatrist from the comfort of your home and you can schedule your first appointment in a matter of days. To get started, take our free online assessment, to see if Talkiatry is right for you and get matched with a psychiatrist.
Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care. Co-founded by a patient and a triple-board-certified psychiatrist, Talkiatry has over 300 doctors, 60 insurance partners, and first visits available in days. We treat patients with anxiety, depression, trauma, ADHD, and more. Get started with a short online assessment.
The information in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.
Dr. Satveet Khela is a board certified physician specializing in adult psychiatry. She has been practicing since 2021.
In addition to focusing on medication management, Dr. Khela's practice also prioritizes a whole person approach, incorporating aspects of nutrition, lifestyle, mindfulness, and supportive or brief cognitive behavioral therapy into the treatment plan. Occasionally, Dr. Khela may believe that additional therapy is also needed and ask that you see a separate therapist to provide the best outcome.
Dr. Khela received her undergraduate degree from University of California Berkeley and her medical degree from A.T. Still University. She completed her residency at University of California San Francisco Fresno, where she served as chief resident in her final year. After completing her training, Dr. Khela worked with medically ill patient's with co-morbid psychiatric illnesses. Throughout her career, Dr. Khela has worked with a diverse set of patient in various stages of their lives.
Dr. Khela focuses on treating patients with anxiety, depression, PTSD, bipolar, OCD, and other mental health issues. She believes in empowering her patients to be active players in their treatment plans to facilitate the best care possible.