Anxiety and Anger: How They Vie to Determine Your Behavior

What makes your anxiety triumph over anger—and vice versa?

Posted Jun 24, 2019

Pixabay Free Image
Source: Pixabay Free Image

In so many ways, anxiety and anger are “primed” to do battle with each other. If someone acutely frightens you, the anxiety vigorously throbbing inside you will prompt you to avoid any sort of confrontation. But if instead someone offends you—whether by encroaching on your boundaries, violating your sense of fairness, or saying something you experience as demeaning or insulting—plus such injustice sufficiently fires you up, you’ll be driven toward the sharply contrasting emotion of anger. And that will motivate you to resolutely hold your ground and stand up to your antagonist, even “go at it” with them.

Compare this to the fight/flight response. If, instinctively, you believe you can safely face down whoever seems to be threatening you, you’ll stand firm and feel free to communicate your ire or indignation. But if instead you see yourself as weaker, or in a more precarious position than your perceived adversary, your self-protective impulse won’t be to fight them at all but to separate yourself from them (and as quickly as possible). In short, your perception both of another’s intentions toward you, and the relative strength of your position, will determine how you emotionally react to them. And that’s what dictates whether you’ll angrily attack them or anxiously defer or capitulate to them.

But what if you’re in an emotional-laden situation that induces both anxiety and anger—say, a situation that seems too dangerous to confront yet also too unfair, malicious, or repugnant to accept? Will you be driven to fight or to flee? (Obviously, you can’t do both.)

The human psyche, abiding by its own subjective logic, can be counted on to determine, or dictate, how in such trying circumstances you’ll react. And it all depends on which emotion in you, anger or anxiety,  is—right then and there—stronger, or more dominant. If, as irritated by the situation as you feel, the distressingly felt risks of directly confronting it preempt all other considerations, you’ll feel compelled to suppress your anger. Your predominant anxiety will signal you to keep your feelings of outrage to yourself—even if, seething, there’s wrathful smoke coming out of your ears.

Doubtless, being governed by anxiety won’t feel very good to you. Backing down, putting your tail between your legs, will have a damaging effect on your self-esteem, pride, and self-respect. You’re likely to experience yourself as weak, ineffectual, or cowardly. All the same, you will have avoided a conflict that you couldn’t help but forecast would make you feel even worse.

From my own clinical practice, I could provide innumerable examples of clients’ anxiety overtaking their anger, or their anger overriding their anxiety. (And if you think about your past, I’m sure you could, too.) But here I’ll focus on just a single individual, which should  exemplify the curiously inverse connection between these two burdensome emotions.

Many clients I’ve worked with have had their inborn motivation to assert their wants and needs “de-conditioned” by their family. Their typically self-centered or self-absorbed parents taught them (whether overtly or implicitly) that they were to be seen but not heard. If they made their wishes known, their parents would scold them for being selfish, tell them that all they cared about were themselves, and even that they ought to be ashamed of themselves. In short, they were made wrong—and bad—for prioritizing their needs over those of their caretakers or siblings.

At a time when it’s critical that a child experience the bond with their parents as secure and stable, they’ll learn all-too-quickly that standing up for what they care about will put their urgently required parental approval at risk. And so they’ll cease voicing their wants and needs, having concluded that they really can’t afford to vocalize these preferences. Especially when very young, they’ll surmise that their very survival depends on not doing anything that could lead to their caretakers’ rejection, or the withdrawal of their support. Of course, as children their impulses will sometimes get the better of them. But they’ll still try to conform to what they regard as parental dictates for  acceptance.

I once had a client (we’ll call her Carrie) who in growing up was about as obedient and compliant as any child could be. Nonetheless, her father would routinely threaten her, unless she “behaved better,” to leave her at an orphanage they regularly passed on the way to her school. A cruel, sadistic person, his emotional abuse lacked any justification but, perversely, he appeared to enjoy frightening—even terrifying—her. Her mother, also extremely intimidated by him (and who married him only because he’d made her pregnant), never could summon the courage to intervene on her daughter's behalf.

Obviously, in such an environment Carrie learned that asserting her wants and needs wasn’t viable. Just the thought of doing so could lead her to experience symptoms of anxiety. That doesn’t mean that when she was very young she didn’t have temper tantrums. For in instances of uncontainable frustration, her anger would reign supreme, with the adverse consequences of such emoting eliminated from awareness. But beyond maybe age four, and up to her later teens when she finally began to rebel against her father’s terribly unreasonable constraints (e.g., he wouldn’t permit her to date because “all boys want the same thing”), she didn’t allow herself to vocalize her pent-up feelings of anger, for fear of its repercussions.

From these descriptions, it should be obvious why Carrie would have felt obliged to stifle whatever anger her father provoked in her. At one point, however, she was ready to leave home and go off to college (which her father had vigorously opposed, despite her having been awarded a scholarship). And this was when she finally gave herself permission to lose her temper when her father’s barbaric treatment of her was so exasperating that whatever anxiety she’d earlier felt about confronting him was trumped by her long-smoldering anger at the deeply felt injustice of it all.

A fascinating thing about anger is that once it elevates beyond a certain degree, it can override anxiety altogether. When you “see red,” whatever anxiety you might have about challenging or confronting another can be defeated, such that you discharge your rage with abandon, absent any sense of trepidation. In such an oppositional, fiery state, you won’t even estimate the various risk-laden contingencies of your action. For the compelling need to speak out against the person so inflaming you is more powerful than any fears you might earlier have experienced about doing so.

All the same, we must consider the circumstance that when fears about asserting one’s thoughts and feelings have become linked to fears of disapproval or desertion, the super-charged, anxiety-nullifying anger that at long last "authorizes" their expression is tied not to assertion but aggression (at times, even violence). And aggressing toward another—whether to get them to take you more seriously, or better attend to your wants or needs— is generally a losing proposition.

Why? Because rarely do people respond positively when they’re approached belligerently. To lower their own heightened emotional discomfort, they’ll either fight back, become archly defensive, or leave the (unpalatable) scene entirely. And that’s why it’s imperative to get control of your emotions—whether they relate to pronounced anger or anxiety—before you decide to address your issues with another. It should be apparent at this point that your best judgment won’t be available if you’re shaking with fear, or boiling with anger.

So whenever you become agitated and intensely upset with someone, the first thing to do is soothe your frazzled nerves. If  in the moment you can’t actually talk yourself into a state of tranquility, you can at least alleviate the exacerbated emotion that endangers your capacity to think straight. And there are any number of methods that can assist you in achieving this all-important equilibrium. I won’t go into them here because they can easily be located on the Web. (Just type “calming yourself down” into your search engine and you’ll be able to explore the various options for restoring emotional balance when it’s been seriously rattled.)

Only when you’re able to stop trembling with anxiety, or bristling with anger, can you bring your more  adult, rational self back online. Otherwise, your ability to think logically and weigh the best course of action objectively can’t move beyond the simplistic, childlike reaction of fight or flight. An earlier post of mine discusses assertiveness as the “golden mean” of human communication (see “Are You Assertive Enough? Here’s 25 Ways to Tell”, psychologytoday.com, June 7, 2016). And frankly, it’s just not possible to converse in this optimal way if you’re overtaken by strong emotion—and independent of what that particular emotion might be.

Once you’re able to calm yourself down, you can decide what’s the most appropriate next step to take. As one author summarizes how to formulate an action plan you won’t later regret:

Assess when to confront and when to walk away. Developing firm and consistent boundaries [and, I’d add, a fact-based, rather than an emotion-based, perspective] will help you decide when it’s wise to stand up to the person or situation that upset you, or whether it’s best to avoid conflict. Pay close attention to your thought process so you remain in the here and now. Mindfulness-based practices are beneficial for catching yourself before reacting through a distorted lens of past experiences. Anxious minds are uncomfortable with uncertainty, so avoid the trap of catastrophic thinking when waiting on an answer. . . . The key to effective anger management is knowing how to express anger at the right time, in the right amount, and to the right people. (Linda Esposito, “The Surprising Emotion Behind Anxiety,” psychologytoday.com, July 26, 2016)

And another writer, echoing this viewpoint, states:

When we don’t remain objective or factual, we tend to make problems worse. Even if a situation appears to call for high levels of emotion, we don’t act like our best selves when we’re reactive or angry. When we can look at the facts, concentrating on the reality of a situation and not our feelings about it, we reduce our anxiety. It turns out that the facts of most situations aren’t as scary as our emotions would lead us to believe.  (Ilene Strauss Cohen, “How Looking at the Facts Reduces Anxiety and Anger,” psychologytoday.com, April 16, 2017)

To conclude, consider that when your emotions are on the ceiling whatever you say is all too likely to come back to haunt you. So take a step back from the immediate situation, employ whatever process works best to calm yourself down, and then ask yourself what’s the most advantageous way to proceed. That, after all, is how you’ll be able to protect your dignity and self-respect—at the same time you safeguard a relationship that may be important to you.

NOTE: One of my many articles on anger that dovetails with this one is "What Your Anger May Be Hiding."

© 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.