When Irritability Becomes Anger: Byproducts of Anxiety

April 14, 2023

“Anger is the deepest form of compassion… Stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, [representing] what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for.”

Irish poet David Whyte

I like this quote for a lot of reasons, particularly that it points out the purpose behind anger, but it is most likely referring to the righteous kind of anger that occurs when someone’s humanity is violated, and that’s not the only kind of anger–not by a long shot. 

Sometimes when we’re dealing with something that’s unfair or purposeless, like having a mental health disorder for no discernible reason, we become irritable with others and start to lose sight of why it’s worth it to be kind.

Anxiety sufferers in particular are prone to these negative emotions because it’s often extremely grating to worry about things you don’t have control over. It can also be very upsetting to know that you’re being controlled by thoughts that don’t make sense, though you have no sense of what to do to stop them.

While being crabby isn’t the worst outcome of having a mental disorder, these kinds of feelings have a great capacity to damage our relationships, especially when annoyance starts to evolve into anger. Unless the majority of your family and friends are involved in psychology or social work, they’re unlikely to know what to do with your anger and will probably not realize that its root cause is something you have little control over and something they have nothing to do with.

This anger, even if inwardly directed, is likely to manifest externally through body language, actions, and responses. Whereas previously you may have just responded with a curt “No thanks” when your roommate asks you to, say, come out for a round of drinks, the unnoticed anger you might be experiencing, having been given the opportunity to fester, is now likely to blow up in a response that will hurt your roommate’s feelings and, consequently, your relationship.

Of course, this outcome isn’t inevitable, even when your reaction to unfair situations tends to lean towards bitterness instead of melancholy. In other words, even if you’re prone to irritability, you don’t have to just wait until that feeling grows into explosive rage. Interestingly enough, a lot of the tips and tricks we teach for anxiety also work for anxiety-induced anger because they both help to encourage a sense of calm. One of these is called radical acceptance, and it works just like it sounds.

Radical acceptance is a skill adopted from dialectal behavior therapy, a distant cousin to CBT that focuses on managing intense emotions. DBT teaches radical acceptance as a method of coming to terms with whatever we’re experiencing, because while we can’t change what’s happening to us, we can change how we react to it. Some of my favorite radical acceptance mantras include “This situation is temporary, not permanent,” “I can accept things as they are,” and “I am not to blame for what’s happened/happening to me.”

Once we begin to understand and accept our situation, the path to dissolving (or at least lessening) our anger is clear. Over time we’ll learn not to fight against things we can’t control, which helps both anxiety and anger, and we can build our anger into productivity and compassion for others who are experiencing the same things.

Remember, all emotions have a purpose, even (and especially) the negative ones.

What’s the purpose of yours? And more importantly–what are you going to do with it?

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