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Losing Your Temper Is Really a Symptom of Anxiety

Getting anxious doesn’t always make you scared and worried — it makes some guys want to break shit

As a little kid, I once watched my dad attempt to remove a trash compactor from the kitchen. Rather than accept defeat when traditional methods failed, he sledgehammered it out of the counter. From that point on, I thought “fucking” was a brand name, because it preceded all major appliances he tried to fix, and learned that I came from a long line of scalding hot tempers. Whether it was my dad, uncles or brother losing their cool, accusing them of having anxiety would make them that much angrier — but that’s totally what it was.

Anxiety is loosely defined as the persistent worry over everyday situations, and anxiety or panic attacks represent an acute and more intense form of this. As much as we think of anxious guys as passive, Woody Allen types with gastrointestinal problems, anxiety often comes off as aggression. In fact, therapists think of anger as a “secondary emotion,” meaning it’s usually a reaction to overwhelming primary emotions like fear, sadness, pain and helplessness, and when coupled with a loss of control, it sends men into fight-or-flight mode. And when fleeing is seen as a sign of weakness, fight becomes the only option for a lot of guys.  

“At some point, we developed anger as a way to channel those helpless feelings into something that is righteous, energizing and motivating, which is anger,” psychotherapist Nick Bognar tells me. “Therefore, sometimes when we get anxious, we take that upsetting helplessness and throw a tantrum about it, which at least gives the illusion of doing something, or agency.” 

Experts like Bognar refer to this type of rage as an externalizing behavior, as opposed to an internalizing behavior, which is essentially the distinction between lashing out and lashing in. Although anxiety and depression are both regarded as understudied and underdiagnosed conditions in men, one thing we do know is that this tendency to externalize emotions is a common symptom of both. Whether you’re screaming into an abyss of traffic on the highway, or at your family or partner, there’s something temporarily soothing about indulging that rage instead of dealing with the more vulnerable option. 

As much as it’s a human impulse to convert more difficult emotions into rage — and I and plenty of other women have been guilty of doing the same — when so many boys are brought up to believe that primary emotions are a threat to their masculinity, there’s more pressure to go with the nuclear option. “Given that cultural norms set the stage for viewing a male’s anger as a sign of power and strength, anger is largely deemed acceptable and often preferable to a show of anxiety, fear or sadness,” clinical psychologist Carla Manly explains. And the more men subscribe to this belief, the harder it is to reverse these explosive behaviors: “Sadly, the more these neural pathways are used, the more hardwired and automatic the responses become.”

Along with the fact that it’s still more socially acceptable for a man to beat his chest than to cry, there are biological factors to consider as well. Men have more testosterone, which makes them more prone to aggression, which is well-known, but a similar link to testosterone and anxiety frequently flies under the radar. Scientists suspect that the correlation between anxiety and aggression in males may have neurobiological roots, and occurs across two overlapping pathways in the brain. 

Studies have found that anxiety and aggression fall into two distinct buckets — those with abnormally high anxiety who are prone to reactive aggression, and those with abnormally low anxiety who are prone to proactive aggression. The first group is associated with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, the latter is linked with antisocial personality disorder, more commonly known being a sociopath. While men with too little anxiety do way more damage to others and society, guys with too much anxiety harm themselves in ways that are subtle and can go undetected, because anger can seem like an effective way to manage anxiety in the short term. If a situation at work makes you anxious and you yell at your employees, the situation will probably change, but at what cost? 

“If anger works to get others to do what you want in a way that reduces the anxiety, then the person may subconsciously learn to continue to use anger as a way of preventing anxiety discomfort,” says therapist Laura Goldstein. Men end up feeling the consequences of their actions (such as the loss of self-esteem from people being scared of you), but don’t always connect them to the initial outburst. “This has long-term ramifications on relationships as well as self-image,” Goldstein warns, which only makes anxiety and depression worse — not to mention, the constant rush of stress hormones is bad for your heart, your boners and many other aspects of physical health as well.

So what should an enraged dude do instead? 

For starters, the next time you see red, “breathe and envision a red stop sign,” Manly advises. This is the first step to emotional regulation, a skill practiced in dialectical behavioral therapy, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy designed for people who chronically lash out. Doing nothing seems easy any other time, unless you’re angry, then all of a sudden everything seems urgent — this is the result of being in fight-or-flight mode, and unless you’re actually being chased by a lion, acting on it is rarely productive.  

The best strategy is to distract yourself and wait it out, a process that takes about 20 to 30 minutes on average, but can be expedited with healthier coping skills, like deep breathing, meditation and light exercise, such as doing a few push-ups, yoga or even going for a walk. (Be warned, people who engage in strenuous exercise when upset double their risk of having a heart attack.) 

Since losing your temper can also feel like a very physical response, making a list of sensations experienced when angry can be helpful. “Do you get flushed? Do you hear a negative voice in your head? Does your heart race? Once you become accustomed to your own anger sensations, you’ll be more likely to give them positive attention before the anger escalates,” says Manly. 

In the end, my dad avoided the embarrassment of admitting he couldn’t complete a home repair, and the loss of control and money that would have come with hiring someone else to do it (notably the handy, divorced fireman who lived across the street), and I walked away with a more colorful vocabulary. I’m sure he probably didn’t feel great about losing control in front of his kid, and definitely had a lot to explain when my mom got home. When you consider the long-term effects of sledgehammering your way through every emotion, it couldn’t have been worth it for a fucking trash compactor.