Is it Anger or Anxiety? Practical ways to deal with anxiety-driven aggression.


 Anxiety can be a masterful imposter. It can sway away from the more typical of daily worrying, feeling on edge, to feeling irritable or even aggression. If the aggressive behavior derives from anxiety it can be treated differently instead of suggesting Anger Management treatment or blaming self or others.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that people should be getting a free pass on their disruptive behavior but anyone who is able to understand and respond to the aggressive behavior as something driven by anxiety will help to find healthier, stronger, more effective ways to respond to self, others, or the world. Once someone suffering from anxiety has a more solid understanding of why they do what they do, they will be well on their way to finding a better response.

Anxiety or Aggression?

The physiological driver of anxiety is a brain under threat – but instead of flight, it can initiates fight. It doesn’t matter that there’s nothing at all there to worry about. When the brain thinks there’s trouble, it acts as though it’s true.

Anxiety happens when a part of the brain, the amygdala, senses trouble. When it senses threat, real or imagined, it surges the body with hormones (including cortisol, the stress hormone) and adrenaline to make the body strong, fast and powerful. This is the fight or flight response and it has been keeping us alive for thousands of years. It’s what strong, healthy brains are meant to do. 

An anxious brain is a strong, healthy brain that is a little overprotective. It is more likely to sense threat and hit the panic button ‘just in case’. When this happens often, it can create ‘anxiety about the anxiety’. One of the awful things about anxiety is the way it launches without warning, and often without need, sending an unsuspecting body unnecessarily into fight or flight.

For adults with anxiety, any situation that is new, unfamiliar, difficult or stressful counts as a potential threat. The fight or flight response happens automatically and instantaneously, sending neurochemicals surging through their bodies, priming them for fight or flight. The natural end to the fight or flight response is intense physical activity. If the threat was real, they’d be fighting for their lives or running for it. When there is no need to fight or flee, there is nothing to burn up the neurochemicals and they build up, causing the physical symptoms of anxiety

Take note of when anger or aggression is running high. Is there a pattern? Does it happen more when you feel highly anxious and less resourceful on how to deal with it in a healthy and constructive way?

It is important to be open to the possibility that beneath an aggressive behavior, is an anxious feeling that is looking for security and comfort. If anxiety is at play, dealing with aggression as shameful or “bad behavior” could inflame the situation. On the other hand, dealing with it as anxiety will provide the strategies and support needed learning vital skills. 

•    Understand where anxiety comes from.

The times you get really angry are probably confusing for you. Everyone gets angry for all sorts of different reasons. Your reason might be your brain is working hard to protect you. The amygdala, the part of the brain that provided fight/flight/freeze responses thinks there might be danger, it surges your body– oxygen, hormones, and adrenaline –to deal with the danger. This could be anything that your brain thinks might hurt you or make you feel uncomfortable – new people, new places, too much noise, having to do something that feels risky. Everybody has something that makes them feel anxious

The same part of the brain also deals with your emotions. When it thinks you might be in danger, it switches on. When it’s on, your emotions will be switched on too. Sometimes they will be switched on causing you to feel like you want to burst into tears or get really angry.

There are a few things you can do to train the brain to relax and be in control of the anxiety.

•    Breathe

We all struggle with that! Breathing strong breaths is like any new skill. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. Diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing, is breathing that is done by contracting the diaphragm, a muscle located horizontally between the thoracic cavity and abdominal cavity. Air enters the lungs and the chest rises and the belly expands during this type of breathing.

•   Name it to tame it. 

Big emotions live in the right side of the brain. The words that make sense of those emotions live in the left. Sometimes, there is a disconnect between the two. It can happen in all of us. When there is a disconnect, there are big feelings, but they feel overwhelming and they don’t make sense. 

Think of it like this. The left part of the brain is ‘this is what’s happening’. It is the literal understanding of the world – the concrete data, the facts. The right part of the brain is ‘this is how I feel about what’s happening’. It’s a more emotional, intuitive understanding of the world. If we only had our left brain, we would have great detail (‘this happened and then this happened’), but it would be a colder, more detached way of responding. If we only had our right brain we would have a sense of how we felt about an experience, and there would be plenty of emotion, but the more rational understanding would be missing. The detail of the world is important (‘this is what happened’) but so is the bigger picture (‘this is how I feel about it’). 

A powerful way to bring calm when in the midst of a big feeling is to name the feeling. When you are in the thick of a big, angry feeling, name the feeling you see. Hearing the words that fit with the feelings will help to strengthen the connection between the right and left sides of their brain. Be patient. It won’t happen straight away, but it will make a difference. This is a powerful part of developing their emotional intelligence.


•    Mindfulness & Self Compassion

The research on the effectiveness of mindfulness could fill its own library. Mindfulness has been proven over and over to have enormous capacity to build a strong body, mind and spirit. Building the brain against anxiety is one of its wonders.

Anxiety happens when the brain spends too much time in the future. This is where it grabs on to the ‘what ifs’. Mindfulness strengthens it to stay in the present. The more you can strengthen this skill, the stronger you will be.

Mindfulness is about stepping back and seeing thoughts and feelings come and go, without judgement, but with a relaxed mind. It has been shown to strengthen the connection between the instinctive, emotional back of the brain (the heartland of the fight or flight response) and the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain that soothes it back to calm). 


And Lastly…

Show self-compassion, focus on increasing awareness & be kind to yourself. As Christopher Germer has said “Self-Compassion is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others.”