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Anger & Anxiety

Learn how anger and anxiety are linked from anger management expert Dr. J. Ryan Fuller in this Howcast video.


I want to talk to you a little bit about anger and anxiety but also the related concepts of fear and hostility. So if we look at the emotions of anger and fear, they're both considered to be by most theorists primary or basic emotions. So, one, they have high adaptive evolutionary value and they certainly develop very early in humans. Both of these are related to the fight or flight response. So when an animal or a human comes into contact with a potential threat or something that's dangerous, the sympathetic nervous system becomes very, very active. And so glucose is sent to the limbs so that the animal or the human can run or flee. That's flight and that's associated with the fear response. And those behaviors are typically avoidance or escape.

Likewise, the anger response or the fight response, sympathetic nervous system is also very active and they both look fairly similar in terms of the physiological response. Certainly a lot of epinephrine, norepinephrine and glucocorticoids are being released at those times. And you might have heard epinephrine and norepinephrine called adrenaline or noradrenaline. But during those times people experience feeling like they have lots of energy, heart rate increases, and so people might talk about palpitations. It's the kind of thing you might experience if you're having a panic attack. You might be sweating more, your respiration increases, your pupils dilate. All these things that are really preparing us to deal with a potential physical threat. So anger and fear are oftentimes by theorists sort of described on tables or in models as sort of being opposites even though they similarly both prepare us to handle threats. But the behavioral action tendencies are seemingly opposite. So oftentimes anger, although not always the case, is associated with approach behaviors. If I become really angry and my nervous system is engaged where the sympathetic nervous system is active, I might engage or approach the potential threat. With fear, I might have my nervous system, my sympathetic nervous system, firing and I feel similarly in terms of my muscles and the amount of energy they have. But instead of approaching, I'm in fact going to withdraw or escape. So that's oftentimes why they're talked about sometimes as opposites.

The related constructs of anxiety and hostility are related to both anger and fear but usually hostility would be something that’s considered an attitude. So it might have a lot of cognitive elements that might go along with anger, thinking about someone and saying, "oh what a jerk, he shouldn't have acted that way, I'm going to get this guy" and that kind of thing. But the physiological arousal would be much lower and oftentimes hostility might sort of permeate across situations as opposed to an intense anger emotion being a particular episode with a discreet beginning and an end with high levels of emotional intensity and physiological activation. Likewise, anxiety is typically concerned with worried thoughts and so these are all lot of cognitions, a lot of thoughts, that usually have a concept, something to do with "what if?" and uncertainty and they're focused on the future, about a potential threat that's coming in the future. And so again, there might be some activation but it's not necessarily a high level of fear all the time but rather a lot of cognitive elements that have to do with worries.

Now anger and fear, these two emotions, can be highly adaptive, especially if they're really short even if it's very intense but it's short in duration that doesn't necessarily have a whole lot of bad health implications. But we know that hostility and anxiety in fact do have all kinds of negative predictive qualities for poor health outcomes. So hostility in fact predicts all kinds of poor outcomes from stroke to heart attack and sometimes is a better predictor than even cholesterol and blood pressure when we're talking about things like heart attacks. The good news is we can in fact decrease hostility levels with effective anger management strategies. So if anyone does have high levels of hostility, it's a very good idea to speak to your health care provider about getting effective treatment. Likewise, anxiety when long lasting, when it becomes chronic and we get chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system, in fact it takes a terrible toll on our immune systems and our cardiovascular system.

So there’re a number of anxiety disorders. Things that go under the construct of anxiety disorder include panic disorder, social anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and things of that nature. So again, if you're experiencing high levels of anxiety for long periods of time, again that means the sympathetic nervous system is overly active, chronically, and it's not turning off. That's also something that would be a good idea to have treated by a professional. The good news, and this isn't true for all mental health disorders, but for both anger and anxiety issues, there are effective treatments. So I highly encourage people who are experiencing high levels of hostility or anxiety to speak to a healthcare practitioner about finding out scientifically supported treatments for either their hostility or their anxiety issues.

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