Men, Anger and Anxiety
When you think about what anxiety looks like what symptoms do you think of? The American Psychological Association describes anxiety as: “An emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry. They may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat”.
When we think about anxiety we think about these kinds of symptoms:
- Feeling nervous or fearful
- Feeling tense, restless, on edge
- Feeling an impending sense of doom or fear
- An increased heart rate/heart palpitations
- Breathing rapidly (hyperventilating)
- Trembling and excessive sweating
- Brain fog with trouble concentrating
- Concentrating or even obsessing about certain negative thoughts
Often people with anxiety feel a sense of being tense and on edge and for many people, often men, sometimes being tense and on edge can also evolve into irritation, frustration and anger.
Research has shown that anxiety is quite likely connected with anger. In a nutshell, anxiety and fear act as a stimuli causing us to feel a sense of arousal and then some people may turn to anger as a defence mechanism of sorts; a defence mechanism intended to help them manage or lessen the anxious arousal feelings. Anger in this way can be seen as a “tool” for an anxious individual to try and regain some personal control and lessen their anxious feelings. Unfortunately if unchecked anger becomes the go to way to deal with anxiety… it can damage a person’s well being, their relationships, and even their mental and physical health.
Interestingly enough, some recent FMRI research even shows that anger and anxiety also activate and “light up” some of the same brain areas! So there is certainly some kind of a brain connection between anger and anxiety.
The anger-anxiety relationship also appears to be a complicated one. Recent research from Sonya Deschênes (2018) on Generalized Anxiety Disorder has found that unexpressed and internalized anger may be actually be one of the things that also underlies and fuels anxiety! People who “boil inside without showing it” on the outside are much more likely to experience generalized anxiety. According to Deschênes, a possible explanation for the anxiety-anger link is that:
when a situation is ambiguous, such that the outcome could be good or bad, anxious individuals tend to assume the worst. That often results in heightened anxiety. There is also evidence of that same thought process in individuals who are easily angered. Therefore, anger and GAD may be two manifestations of the same biased thought process.
Men, Anger and the Stigma of Emotions
In our current society, for men, emotions are still stigmatized. Little boys in our society are still told to “man up” when they’re feeling anxious nervous or afraid. When it comes to emotions like anger and anxiety, and most likely because of the patriarchal nature of our society and the concept of “toxic masculinity”; men haven’t been allowed to show weakness or emotions in a visible, obvious way. They’re told to not cry like a baby or to toughen up when they’re feeling anxious, upset and overwhelmed by their world. This effectively teaches boys and young men to deny or stuff their emotions down inside of themselves. Anyone that’s studied even a little bit of Psychology knows that stuffing emotions down probably isn’t a good thing; it can result in mental and even physical health problems.
Anxiety is not an emotion that takes well to being stuffed down and ignored. If it is, it can come out in all kinds of different and even unexpected ways. And one of those ways for men that has also been traditionally socially acceptable… is to be irritated, frustrated and angry.
For men, especially those with more traditional value systems, having anxiety and worrying about things just isn’t a socially acceptable behaviour that they can show in front of other people. Anxiety and worry are seen as weakness, and men are supposed to be strong, confident and sure of themselves! Showing that you have strong feelings of worry and anxiety about anything other than a bear is really seen as being weak and lacking in manliness! As a result, for some men, their anxiety “comes out” as what has traditionally been an acceptable emotion for men to display, and that’s anger.
When some men experience high amounts of anxiety and worry, their minds go into the fight-flight-response and the result is a readiness to “go to battle” and this results in feelings of anger and aggression. Being angry often makes men feel like they are doing something about the anxiety arousal they are feeling deeply inside. By getting angry and aggressive, they’re being a man and taking care of it. But unfortunately, displaying anger and “blowing up” every time they’re anxious can really take a toll on their health and interpersonal relationships.
Neglecting our anger feelings can actually be very harmful to us. Unresolved, internalized anger is damaging to our bodies, our interpersonal relationships and our own psychological well-being. Unresolved anger can leave us in a steady-state of perpetual emotional arousal, which can then increase the anxiety level in a vicious cycle of anger and anxiety, or can even make us feel chronically helpless and hopeless.
Unfairness in our life can make us feel threatened, vulnerable, shamed and even feel like we’re inadequate to meet our own needs. Those strong feelings of vulnerability and unfairness may then lead us to “personalize the experience” and feel like “This is being done to me” or “This is happening to me” and this can make us feel helpless and out of control. When we’re helpless and out of control, anger seems like a reasonable response at the time. Unfortunately, acting out in anger inappropriately or even in destructive ways may give us the illusion that we’re standing up for ourselves and “taking care of business” like men are supposed to do. We may feel better by not having to sit with and tolerate such difficult and even overwhelming feelings like anger. But if we make it a habit or pattern of angrily acting out, or exploding, we really only give our power over to the anger by letting it control our behaviour and our lives.
Anger, Anxiety and Health
The effects of consistently ignoring our emotions can really harm our physical and mental health as well. And unfortunately research has shown that the combination of anger and anxiety can especially result in numerous serious health issues like heart disease/high blood pressure, increased incidence of diabetes and autoimmune disease, compromised immune system, increased cholesterol, stomach/digestive problems, binge eating/obesity, and even sleep issues. The deadly duo of anger and anxiety also significantly increases the chances of death from cardiovascular disease and other disease!
High levels of anxiety and anger can also make us susceptible to mental health problems like “burn-out”, depression, and even schizophrenia. Luckily though other research has found that using self calming/relaxation strategies, mindfulness/meditation, physical exercise, and other self care/ self soothing strategies can lower our anger and anxiety and improve our health.
So if you think you may be someone or know someone that struggles with managing anger and anxiety what can you do? Here are some good steps to start with:
1. Challenge Your Anger Perspectives
How do you feel about anger? Although it’s not socially acceptable to display anger overtly and go “over the top”. Maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to feel and even express anger. Anger is not necessarily always a negative emotion to be denied and avoided. In fact it can even be an appropriate response to certain life situations.
Anger is a sensible response when there is something like unfairness or injustice happening to us or someone else. That’s great if there is truly a reason to feel such a strong emotion. Unfortunately people who are prone to strong emotions like anger, may use it as their go to emotion. One size fits all.
Anger can also be a motivating force in our life that can be used to motivate us and help us to change what might be wrong in our life. So maybe it’s really okay to feel angry and frustrated once in a while?
Feelings like anger and anxiety may just “show up” and hit us without warning. Although we may not choose or ask to feel negative emotions, we can decide what we do with them. We can take control of the situation and even though we may have a super strong negative feeling, we can still decide whether to act on those feelings. And what we choose to do with those feelings is what’s most important. Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl put it very aptly:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
It’s “normal” to have the “stimulus” of people, happenings and things in the world “make us” feel angry, but it’s not functional or productive for our “response” to be “acting out” with others in inappropriate angry ways that crosses their boundaries. We can choose to be angry and aggressive or we can choose to be appropriately assertive and express ourselves without crossing boundaries and hurting others. Self-help books or therapy can both be great ways to try and learn how to manage our anxiety and anger emotions in better, more productive ways. One of the best ways to start though, is to learn how to slow down.
2. Learn to Slow it Down!
Feeling angry is really a crappy feeling. So we need to try not to make it worse through rash or hotheaded behaviours (words/actions) towards others. It’s really about learning how to “respond rather than react” whenever possible. This means that you may have to pause or even take a step back and slow down. When we are in the grips of strong angry feelings our judgment is clouded and even our perceptions are somewhat distorted. In the moment calming strategies like deep breathing, taking a time out, learning to count to ten, can be helpful. Really any strategy that calms us and decreases our immediate emotional reactivity is helpful. Our goal should be to calm and empower ourselves to not react immediately to the anger stimulus. If we’re not angry we can be more balanced and logical in solving the problem that’s made us emotionally aroused. We need to learn and practice the skills that allow us to “respond” with calm, cool, logic and empathy rather than angry hotheaded “reactions.”
3. Learn to Feel All the Feelings
Maybe as a child you weren’t you weren’t taught to handle anxiety and/or anger in inappropriate and effective ways and as a result you don’t know what to do with it when you feel it? To start maybe it’ it’s important to allow yourself to learn how to feel all the feelings? Learn to feel the good, the bad, and maybe even the ugly? Many people try to fix their emotions as quickly and efficiently as they possibly can! But maybe sometimes it’s okay to learn how to “sit with uncomfortable feelings”. Here is a great link on how to do that with a Buddhist mindfulness strategy: How to Deal with Uncomfortable Feelings
This can be tough for many of us, but by learning to actually “listen to” our emotional thoughts and feelings, we can actually learn to manage them better and this can help us “feel better” and even improve the quality of our relationships at work and with our friends and family. Be aware though that if you decide to start feeling all the feelings, it can feel very overwhelming and if it feels unmanageable? Maybe getting the assistance of a psychologist might be very helpful.
4. Learn Relaxation and Mindfulness Strategies
Deep, calming breathing, muscle relaxation exercises and meditation/mindfulness are a great ways to start to learn how to defuse and lessen the impact of negative emotions like anger and anxiety. If you learn these kinds of strategies and start practicing them daily, you will gradually build skills that will help you manage difficult emotions in better was. Here is a good place to start: Mindfulness for Anxiety
Increasing physical activity is also a great way to reduce anxiety and anger. Even going for a brisk 2o minute walk every day may be enough to help improve our mood and help us manage negative emotions in better ways. Humour is also super useful to managing negative emotions. Seeing the irony or humour in negative situations can be invaluable.
5. Seek Professional Help
What if we have much childhood trauma, or other kinds of trauma from our past? What if that past trauma makes feeling feelings and dealing with the strong emotions of anxiety and anger very difficult and complicated? Maybe then it might be best to find a professional like a psychologist to help you learn to feel, interpret and manage those complicated emotions?
Deschênes, Sonya S. (2014) The Role of Anger in Symptoms and Processes of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. PhD thesis, Concordia University.
Kimbrell, Tim A et al.Regional brain activity during transient self-induced anxiety and anger in healthy adults Biological Psychiatry , Volume 46 , Issue 4 , 454 – 465
Novaco, R. W. (1976). The functions and regulation of the arousal of anger. American Journal of Psychiatry, 133(10), 1124-1128.
Salleh M. R. (2008). Life event, stress and illness. The Malaysian journal of medical sciences : MJMS, 15(4), 9-18.
Suinn, R. M. (2001). The terrible twos—anger and anxiety: Hazardous to your health. American Psychologist, 56(1), 27-36. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.56.1.2
Understanding Anger PDF https://uhs.berkeley.edu /sites/default/files/understanding_anger_0.pdf
Note: This blog is not intended as medical advice, treatment or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation with a mental health or medical professional.