Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a psychological condition characterized by excessive and uncontrollable worry across many life domains (for example, health, work, finances, and relationships). When people with GAD are worrying, it is common for them to feel tension in their body, to experience headaches, and to have difficulty falling asleep. But what you may find surprising is that worrying can also be accompanied by irritability and anger.
Feeling restless and “on edge” or having a “short fuse” are common examples of how people with GAD describe how they are feeling when they worry. Although anxiety and anger may seem like opposite or incompatible emotions, research shows that anxious individuals can also struggle with anger.
Researchers at Ryerson University and Concordia University have proposed that people with GAD become angry when they are made to feel uncertain. People with GAD have been shown to be very intolerant of uncertainty, and of the discomfort that uncertainty arouses. Although most people don’t like uncertainty, people with GAD seem to be “allergic” to it, where even small amounts of uncertainty generate a big reaction. When people with GAD are asked to describe their attitude toward uncertainty, they tend to say that not knowing how something will turn out “spoils everything” and is “unfair.” When one does not expect to feel uncertain about a situation, this can feel especially unfair. And naturally, when things seem unfair, we can get angry.
To date, little is known about the relationship between anger and worry. Therefore, in their 2014 study, Katie Fracalanza and colleagues at Ryerson University and Concordia University examined the role of anger in GAD. The research team gave 233 adults questionnaires assessing GAD symptoms and beliefs about uncertainty, as well as scales measuring tendencies to experience and express specific types of anger and aggression. Some statements participants were asked to rate included: “When frustrated, I let my irritation show” and “Other people always seem to get the breaks.”
People high in GAD symptoms who endorsed the belief that uncertainty has negative personal and behavioural implications (for example, “being uncertain makes me feel useless and not normal”) were more likely to report that they tend to hold in and not express angry feelings. And people high in GAD symptoms who reported believing that uncertainty is unfair, were more likely to say that they tend to express anger toward others.
Overall, the findings of this study provide a better understanding of the emotions that people high in the tendency to worry experience. The idea that people who worry may become angry when they are confronted with uncertainty is a new one. More research is needed to investigate this idea. If it turns out that anger is a common part of the experience of people who worry chronically, then next steps will involve determining whether teaching people how to identify and manage their anger has benefit in the treatment of GAD.