I thought I had 'anger issues' – but the real culprit was anxiety

Successful relationships with ex-family members have a key feature.
Successful relationships with ex-family members have a key feature. Photo: Stocksy

I can remember the first time someone described me as angry. A former boss was putting my name forward for a promotion of sorts and she meant it as a compliment. "She has a Larry David level of anger" were the words she used. I remember fuming silently.

I come from a passionate, emotional family. So, I had no idea I was angry until friends started to laughingly referring to my "rants". I just thought I was cynical. It's not like I don't have other feelings. When I'm moved by something, like a kind gesture from a friend, or a live puppy, my eyes get misty. I laugh loudly and often, which makes me seem like a poster for peri-menopause, but it's true. And yet, my default gesture is folded arms, my default face colour is red.

I've yelled down phones – and mobiles have not prevented me from the dramatic hang up. Mobiles are in fact fantastic if you want to throw something.

I've been told by a manager not to "get upset" – a fair call as my performative sighing was distracting others from the presentation. I've written numerous articles about things that offend me, including phrases, human relationships, and Masterchef.

It dawned on me that my anger – once directed at semi-noble pursuits – was now lurching at anything that crossed my path

I have sworn at well-meaning sales people. I have called up restaurants to complain about undercooked food, even though I'd eaten it. I possess both a resting bitch face and a working bitch face.

I used to take wild pride in my anger. In a world that tells women to stay silent, to smile, to cheer up, it felt like a feminist act. I have enjoyed sternly correcting sexist men and I still think that's my responsibility as a functioning member of society. And, as innumerable psychologists (and Beyonce's Lemonade) can attest, anger is a useful emotion, it tells us when our boundaries are being violated and it leads to knowledge about our needs, emotional and otherwise.

But, it can also be addictive distraction. I found this out soon after giving birth to my first kid almost four years ago. Lacking sleep and sense, I noticed myself becoming enraged at a barista for pronouncing "soy" as "shoy". I refused to pay a cab driver because he took the long route. I believe I told him I'd see him in hell?

Recently, while watching Big Little Lies I saw fractures of myself onscreen. Reese Witherspoon's character said she liked "tending" to grudges and was focused on the next mini outrage, but the truth was she felt out of control, and abandoned. Similarly, Laura Dern's character appears aggressive and focused on petty pursuits, until we learn of her frustrations, and her loneliness.

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When my son was six months old it dawned on me that my anger – once directed at semi-noble pursuits – was now lurching at anything that crossed my path. It felt like a valve; I had to release it every day or by evening I'd have a panic attack. This feeling, of adrenalin and cortisol flooding my system, felt like I was somehow in control of a largely uncontrollable human.

One day, instead of letting my rage about my neighbour's loud renovations overtake me, I decided to stop and pause in the silence. Try to see if there was anything else in there. Quite suddenly I began crying, and crying and crying. Oh. I was… sad?

We know that sadness is anger turned inward. We know that depression can manifest as anxiety. But what I didn't know is that anger and anxiety are two sides of the same hot head.

Researchers undertook a study in 2012 that looked at why sufferers of generalised anxiety disorder were more irritable than the rest of the population. They believe a possible explanation for the anger and anxiety link is that, "when a situation is ambiguous, such that the outcome could be good or bad, anxious individuals tend to assume the worst.

"That often results in heightened anxiety. There is also evidence of that same thought process in individuals who are easily angered. Therefore, anger and [generalised anxiety disorder] may be two manifestations of the same biased thought process."

It's so obvious, isn't it? But it wasn't until I looked into it and felt it, and dared to feel more than just the one emotion that made me feel powerful in what felt like a powerless situation.

Four years later, I'm less angry. Not because I've stopped judging or cynically analysing almost everything, but because I've tried – and failed – and then tried again to stop focusing on negative stuff.

So, instead of "ranting" I try to keep the thought to myself, until I forget about it, which I almost always do. I try not to bitch just for the sake of it, and if I'm worried about something small, I don't call anyone to talk about it, I tuck it away for another day.

This doesn't always work, but the great thing is, I don't really care. Not because I'm currently overjoyed – far from it. I just see my rage for what it is: fear afraid of itself.

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