Why Being Anxious Turns You Into An Angry Mess (& How To Control Anger That Stems From Anxiety)

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Why Being Anxious Turns You Into An Angry Mess (& How To Control Anger That Stems From Anxiety)
Self, Health And Wellness

Taken on their own, anxiety and anger are both uncomfortable, energizing emotions.

So it's not surprising that when you feel anxious and angry at the same time, chances are things are headed not only in an uncomfortable direction but a potentially destructive one too — unless you do something to take control of your anger.

The relationship between anxiety and anger is a close one. Not only can these emotions fuel and escalate each other, but they often are experienced alongside each other. I sometimes refer to anxiety as a “volume control” of anger and other painful emotions; the higher the volume of the painful emotion, the higher the anxiety.

RELATED: How I Stopped Letting Anger Ruin My Life

When your anxiety and anger reach loud enough levels, you tend to react instead of respond. A “reaction” is largely emotional and protective in nature, whereas a “response” requires thought and is more intentional.

As anxiety and anger escalate, it becomes more difficult to think clearly and problem-solve because your body is readying for protective action rather than thoughtful analysis. What can be especially challenging about this is that it’s often a need to problem solve that causes you to experience anxiety and anger in the first place.

At its most extreme, this is the “fight” part of your threat response (otherwise referred to as your “fight-or-flight” response) and can lead to impulsive aggression that will only further complicate the situation.

On the other hand, higher cortical brain areas are engaged when you pause to think and choose your response instead of reacting impulsively. Being able to respond allows you to behave in ways that are more in line with your values and intentions.

When you are feeling anxious and angry it’s important that you recognize the potential problem you may be creating if you react instead of respond, and instead practice pausing, noticing, and taking control. Once you do this, you can calm your nervous system just enough so you can more effectively choose how to respond.

The next time you feel anxious and angry simultaneously, try these 3 things to calm down so you can shift your thoughts back to solving the challenge you face:

1. Pause and notice what's happening in your body

Do you have a racing heart? Are your palms sweaty? Do you feel a pit in your stomach? Are your shoulders tight? Does your face feel hot?

When you feel anxious and angry enough that your body is responding it can be miserable and nearly impossible to ignore.

It’s your physiological threat response, and it’s doing what it’s supposed to do — making you uncomfortable enough to take notice, interrupt your inertia, and prod you to take protective action. The simple act of taking notice helps activate your brain’s thinking centers.

RELATED: 5 Ways To Handle Negative Emotions & Get Your Feelings Back Under Control — Fast

2. Use a calming strategy

Fortunately, it is possible to calm anxiety and anger even when your physiological threat response is activated. Two of the easiest strategies to implement in the moment you need to calm down quickly are drawing your attention to the here and now and breathing.

Grounding helps draw your attention to the concrete here and now rather than the distracting thoughts in your head that so often reference the past or the future.

It’s about focusing on what’s right in front of you, like how the floor looks or the shadows the light creates, what sounds you hear, and what scents you smell or taste.

In bringing awareness to the most concrete things in front of and outside of yourself, this technique powerfully interrupts the vicious cycle of thoughts that escalate and maintain your distress.

The other most effective thing you can do when you need to calm your nervous systems and your physiological threat response is to calm your breath.

Controlled breathing has been shown to activate the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system which can help turn off the threat response.

Because you took the time to notice what is happening in your body first, you will be able to tell when the calming strategy you have chosen to use is beginning to work.

3. Look for the anxiety

Unlike anger that is often a front-and-center emotion, anxiety can be trickier to see and understand. But looking for the anxiety when you are feeling anxious and angry can help you better understand your overall reaction, and ultimately point you in the direction of the problem asking to be solved.

Anger is often the result of pain fueled by the fear that if it continues you won’t be able to handle it. It’s this fear of not being able to handle what may come that is so often the anxiety piece.

When you can begin searching for the source of the anxiety, you activate your thinking skills which helps you know you are moving out of reactivity and into responsiveness.

Feeling anxious and angry at the same time can be overwhelming, extremely uncomfortable, and risk dangerous reactivity. But you don’t have to feel so out of control. Simply remembering you can take control can help yourself is a key part of being able to do so.

When you take notice of your feelings and remember to calm yourself by shifting your focus, you give yourself the control you need to move away from reactivity and respond.

This is how you can channel anxiety and anger into healthy problem-solving that helps you feel stronger and more confident.

RELATED: Life-Changing Anger Management Techniques To Use When You Feel Like You're About To Explode

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Dr. Alicia Clark is a licensed clinical psychologist. For more help with managing stress and anxiety, check out her anxiety blog, download her free ebook, or sign up for her newsletter.

This article was originally published at Alicia Clark PsyD. Reprinted with permission from the author.