Often, the very act of feeling and experiencing natural emotions is stigmatized. Getting in tune with your anger, and getting clear about how you are feeling can have profound effects on your overall wellness. Furthermore, understanding when anger can be a symptom of depression or anxiety can help you determine the next best step in your health journey.
Transcription featuring Dr. Kristy Lamb
I’m Dr. Kristy Lamb, board-certified in psychiatry and family medicine with an expertise in psychotherapy here to provide expert-level, scientifically-based mental health education in a practical and applicable way.
One question I often get as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist is how do I differentiate real feelings of anger that as I talk about often are really healthy and useful information that help us guide decisions that set boundaries from depressive irritability?
First, let’s take a look at these two different categories and define them initially. Anger as an emotion is a physiological experience in the body. There’s a stimulus in the environment that then triggers the sensations in the body of heat in the chest, energy and power in the limbs and extremities, sometimes a furrowed brow, or a clenched jaw. It’s nothing more than a physiological experience that lets us know something in my environment is not okay. I might need to set a boundary.
The Anger or Irritation is Pervasive
Depressive irritability and sometimes anxious irritability comes in when we are more pervasively, just kind of annoyed at everyone and everything. It actually can sometimes be defensive over anger. One sign that we can know that might be irritable depression or defensive depression of irritability is that it’s pervasive. It’s kind of across the board. Everything’s annoying me right now or sometimes over grief or sadness.
Sometimes when someone is feeling really sad, they get anxious over having sad feelings, sad feelings aren’t allowed, so they get anxious and then they put on an irritable or aggressive front. They may puff up. They may be just dismissive of everyone around them or irritated by everyone around them. It’s not clearly linked to a stimulant.
The Anger or Irritation is Out-of-Proportion
A second thing that can help us know this is irritability in the context of anxiety or depression is when the response is out of proportion to the stimulus. Sometimes we can get really puffed up and really nitpicky with one of our, maybe a partner about, I would never talk about my husband’s shoes all over the floor, but I know when I come [inaudible 00:02:17] and I’m feeling annoyed at the shoes on the floor, it’s not about the shoes on the floor. The irritation that I feel inside is not about the shoes, it’s not anger at my husband, leaving his shoes out for a minute. He’s usually a very neat person, but if I see something out of place, it means there’s something else going on. It means that I’m often for me trying to create some kind of external order or trying to demand some kind of external order because I’m feeling kind of chaotic inside. I put it on other people, I might externalize it.
This can be irritability that again, that’s out of proportion to what’s going on. That on another day really might not even notice. This irritability that comes up in the face of depression or anxiety is going to be pretty distinct from just feeling grounded in a feeling of anger about something that there is a very clear stimulus for.
Underlying Symptoms of Depression or Anxiety
The other thing we want to look out for, are there underlying symptoms of depression or anxiety that would also tip us off to this idea? We want to look for any signs or symptoms of anxiety in the body that we might notice. Ruminating thoughts that might also contribute to that pervasive irritability or depressive symptoms. Any signs of isolation, self attack, withdrawing, feeling of numb inside, except when this irritability comes out. It’s not a deeper connection to anger, it’s just this kind of discharge pathway of releasing any kind of feeling that’s coming in. This is very, very common with depression and anxiety.
What to Do When You Feel Overwhelming Anger
It can be very helpful when we’re feeling irritated and just our nerve endings are a little bit raw, it can be useful to check in. What we can do is look in and get clear what’s the stimulus? What am I really frustrated about? Sometimes immediately I can, when we do this work, we can kind of get clear, okay, it’s not about the shoes.
- What am I really frustrated about?
- Am I really angry?
- Do I need to set a boundary or is there something else going on that has me a little bit elevated that I need to calm my nervous system, calm my body, and look in to get clear?
- Did I have something tough at work happen?
- Do I need to create space for myself for some other feelings that may be being pushed down in the moment?
When we can get really clear about the deeper feeling, anger in it of itself is actually going to feel empowering. It’s going to move us to set a boundary, to get really clear and asked to get our needs met. Whereas this other discharge can also sometimes lead us, unfortunately, into feeling guilty about how we’re operating with other people that guilt can perpetuate depression. We really want to watch out that if you’re somebody, and I’m absolutely in this camp, that can get kind of prickly when you are anxious or when you’re feeling down, noticing this is really important so that you can take care of yourself in a different way. That if I’m noticing that I’m getting irritable, I want to look in, really get clear what’s going on, and then try to move forward in a different way.