Male “anger” as a symptom of anxiety
Are you a man who has been told that you have “anger problems”? Been recommended for “anger management”? Have you had moments in your life when you have grossly over-reacted to situations, yelling at people you love, or a perfect stranger? Have you lost control to the point of being physically aggressive or even violent when upset, or when feeling “enraged”? Do you then have deep feelings of regret, confusion and sadness afterward? A deep desire to mend the relationships you have damaged, but also feeling insecure, ashamed and embarrassed?
These are just a few examples of what popular culture has labeled “anger”, somewhere on the same continuum as the term “toxic masculinity”. But I would argue that these are all also clear symptoms of anxiety, likely linked to childhood trauma, poor attachment to parental figures, lack of emotional awareness or decreased ability to self-regulate your mood.
What exactly is anxiety?
General signs of anxiety include restlessness, irritability, worrisome thoughts, muscle tension, increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, heavy breathing and feeling fatigued or tired. These symptoms are a result of the brain’s perception that there is a threat arising, signaling to the nervous system to prepare for a fight or flight situation.
These symptoms are beneficial to us when you are faced with a true threat to yourself, or those that you love and care for. They will provide you the strength, speed and mental focus to fight off a perpetrator, to run from a wild animal, to grab your children and prevent them from getting hit by a car.
When the brain misperceives a threat, however, these responses may be inappropriate to the situation. Fighting a guy in the parking lot who took your parking spot, running away from an argument with your spouse, or yanking your child in the grocery store because they started to wander away from you may be an overreaction to the situation.
How does anxiety impact my behavior?
These types of uncontrolled reactions can also begin to perpetuate themselves over time, leading your mind to become hypervigilant, always on alert for dangers that likely are not present. As a result, you may begin to develop behaviors that impact your relationships with others. Because you are always looking for perceived threats, you may become more obsessive, easily agitated, and at times overwhelmed or panicked.
Chronic anxiety develops when our minds continue to prepare the body for possible threats, but we don’t have the opportunity, or need, to fight or flee. Our body stores up the energy, adrenaline and cortisol in the muscles and nervous system, leading to fatigue, or a t times, physical symptoms such as back, neck or headaches.
As you become more vigilant, obsessive, tired and restless, you may begin to lose sleep and begin to isolate yourself from people you care about, focusing on your work and any perceived threats to the wellbeing of you or your family. Naturally, you may become more irritable, which may lead to curt remarks, yelling or even aggression towards people you care about.
Why do I act this way?
Why do you behave this way, when you know that you are a good dude and you know that you genuinely care about others, especially your family? Well, it is likely because of how much you care, that you behave in such a paradoxical manner. Caring and loving are intense emotions. Strong emotions are sometimes difficult to manage, and can easily shift from positive feelings to negative feelings, fear or desperation.
When you are feeling desperate, whether due to work problems, financial issues, relationship problems, or the general state of the socio-political world around you, your brain begins to sound the alarms, and your body begins to prepare to defend itself. You will feel that something is awry, but there may be no apparent threat, which can only perpetuate the anxiety, as now you feel compelled to find the threat.
Why do I feel so annoyed by people?
When you start seeking threats, you will eventually find them. You find them in your relationships with your boss, your spouse, your children, the people you come across day to day, in small inconveniences, “affronts” to your ego, people who think, look or behave differently than you, and eventually yourself. You may respond to these situations with the vigor and urgency of an actual threat to your life or wellbeing.
Before you even know it, you are yelling at someone in public, you argue with your spouse over dishes, you feel an urge to fight people, or to just “get away”. You push people away, because you begin to fear that you will hurt them or because you just cannot tolerate any more stimulation in your life. You may even have thoughts of suicide.
Is this just an excuse for behaving badly?
These behaviors are clearly not socially appropriate. They cannot be condoned nor accepted. In no way will I suggest that anxiety can ever be used as an “excuse” for harming others or unnecessary aggression. We cannot as a culture continue to permit men to behave in ways that put others in fear or danger.
However, we can begin to recognize these behaviors as signs of anxiety, and intervene appropriately. We can begin to have compassion, however difficult it may be, for men who behave in these ways. Through compassion and understanding, we can better identify the appropriate treatment interventions for these behaviors, and the underlying anxiety. And likewise, we can hold men accountable to getting the help they need, and working towards a better self.
What can I do to be my better self?
If you can relate to this blog, there really is hope for feeling better. These feelings and behaviors can be resolved, but it may require you to change your lifestyle, get support from other men who experience similar struggles, and to engage in professional therapy. Consider the following suggestions when you are feeling anxious:
Recognize that there is no real threat, but your body may need to discharge energy – go for a walk or run, stretch your body, do some deep breathing, or lift weights. Exercise and breathing help discharge the adrenaline rush that accompanies anxiety.
Drink a lot of water, eat protein snacks between meals, and limit your caffeine and alcohol.
Get good sleep. Get to bed early, use sound machines or ear plugs to block out noise, use dark curtains to block out light, limit electronics or TV in sleeping space.
Talk to other dudes. We are all feeling these things to some degree, and there is a lot of benefit in knowing that you are not the only one that feels this way.
Seek individual therapy or consider a men’s support group.
Moving towards a better self
We live in a world that is quite stressful, and our culture provides us with many mixed messages about what it means to be a man, what it means to be strong, and how we “should” or “shouldn’t” live our lives. This creates a lot of anxiety in people when they feel they are not navigating these expectations in a way that gives them joy and satisfaction in life.
Much like any mental health problem, the behaviors that we have labeled “male anger” are just symptoms of a collective anxiety that exists in our culture. While this explanation does not excuse behaviors, it does lend insight into the appropriate way to address these behaviors, and subsequently treat the underlying problem.
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Chris Campassi is a psychotherapist, clinical supervisor, and blogger. Chris helps adults in the areas of depression, anxiety, severe and persistent mental illnesses, grief and loss, emergency evaluations and interventions, assessment, and diagnosing. Follow Catalyss Counseling on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.