The link between depression and anger
We don’t often consider anger when looking at depression
We’ve all seen comedies about people that are ordered to go to anger management classes and howled at how all the little things fuel their rage. People’s tones of voices set them off. Children cause them to curse and an encounter with the elderly provokes crass humor and sarcasm. It can all seem quite comical when it’s designed to make us laugh.
But the reality is that many people carry that kind of anger with them in their daily lives. And the result can be absolutely crippling.
I remember my therapist once explained to me that anger is a secondary emotion. She explained that anger doesn't really speak for itself. It is a symptom that is trying to draw your attention to something that is wrong. Usually, something that we don’t want to admit, deal with, or face. Usually something that we are trying to bury deep down inside. That’s why she said anger is good.
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”
- Mark Twain
Anger is our body’s emotional warning sign that there is something that we need to address. Yet all too often, we never ask ourselves about where our anger truly comes from or what it means in our lives.
Suppressed anger turns to depression
One of the links between anger and depression points to the fact that dealing poorly with anger can play a central role in the onset of depression. This seems to happen when anger is not properly acknowledged, ignored, and stored up instead. If we go with the theory that anger is a warning system trying to tell you that something is wrong, this would be the equivalent of ignoring that “check engine light”. Chronically suppressing anger can eventually turn it into depression. Because the issue causing the anger is never properly addressed, acknowledged, or rectified.
Because anger can be such an “out loud”, extroverted and heated emotion, we rarely associate it with depression. Depression is generally considered to be quiet, sad, and introverted. Coincidentally, Western Medicine’s pharmacological approach to depression usually treats anger and depression as separate entities as well. Medication targeting depression is usually focused on getting people to be more happy and engaged… not less angry. Yet depression is much more than just sadness. And research is starting to show that anger and depression are far more connected than we have ever thought.
Turning anger inwards
When a person struggles to deal with anger and diffuse it in a helpful way, it can be hard to find a place to direct that energy. Researchers have also found that people who deal with anger poorly, sometimes end up turning that anger inwards onto themselves. Most notably this happens when a person attempts to redirect the anger they feel from being embarrassed or feeling ashamed. They often turn it inwards which can lead to depression and self harming behaviors.
A spectrum of behaviors can be associated with that, from self-cutting to anorexia. Anger carries great power in affecting our behavior. Through that it becomes ever more clear that anger and depression have complex links that present in many different ways. And very often we are not aware of these links. We have no idea they even exist. This of course, makes it difficult to heal or to even address the problem to start with.
When I was first dealing with my depression, if you had asked me if I was angry, I would have said “no”. Anger wasn’t really the primary emotion I was feeling. But I couldn’t have clearly told you what I was feeling instead either. The more exploring I did with my therapist, the more I started to surprise myself with how often I admitted that certain things in my life had made me angry.
I heard myself say it over and over again. I started to realize that these were all small things that I dismissed at the time for “unreasonable” or “silly” and then tucked away. Yet the sum of all those instances of small things had started to add up. Mainly because I never really acknowledged them, or demanded a change in the situation.
Many causes for anger
I was angry about some unfair calls my boss had made at work. But it was just his choice, and there was nothing I could do about that. I was angry that my then-boyfriend hadn’t remembered an important date, but I just gave him the silent treatment for the evening and moved on. I was angry about other little things. Like the fact that my friend lived too far away to come help me with a new project I had, and that my favorite bakery closed.
It turns out, I was angry a lot. And no, I didn’t throw a table and break some plates. My parents had raised me to be civil and I had mastered the art of tucking those little angers away. I told myself that it was “silly to feel angry about that” and “there was just nothing I could do about that”. My inner dialogue led the way to self silencing all those little upsets. Over time, some of those upsets happened again and again, and I silenced them again and again.
Laying the depression foundation
I felt angry a lot at school. There was the adjustment from moving to a foreign country, which was extremely difficult for me. It ate away at me silently for years. At home, the relationship with my parents made me angry a lot. I blamed them for moving us to the other end of the world, without giving me a choice. There were many days that started out with shouting and door slamming at home.
Looking back, these were two big red flags my anger was waving for me, trying to direct me to situations that needed attention. Something was wrong, the balance wasn’t right. I felt unjustly hurt over and over in the same situation. I thought at the time it was just part of all my problems, more things that fueled my depression. In retrospect, this very early period as a teenager was probably where the foundation of my depression was laid.
The consequences of suppressed anger
Some things that cause anger in life just suck and there is nothing you can do about them (like your favorite show being cancelled). But, other things are causing you anger over and over again because they are somehow broken or wrong. If the same thing causes you anger again and again, it tells you that the situation needs to be addressed or changed.
If you feel hurt over and over in a relationship, the relationship is not healthy. No matter how much you ignore it, pretend it doesn’t happen and suppress your anger.
The red flag is there, you’re just trying to sit on it so no one sees it and you can pretend it’s not there. And I find that as women, we are just so good at putting a lid on it. Without trying to be sexist or stereotypical, we tend to just accept our lot in life. Even if that means personal sacrifice. Men tend to just explode once and then move on. In contrast, many women suppress that anger they are feeling because they feel they have no right to be upset.
The straw that broke the camel's back
Other times, a single event will cause you tremendous anger, and we also precede to suppress it. Maybe it’s a seismic betrayal by a loved one, a physical assault, or a wrongful dismissal from a job you loved. Any of these events can cause immense anger that needs to be addressed. And again, as women we often feel that those are not valid reasons to be angry.
But if suppressed, over years, that anger can leak out and start to seep into all facets of your life. Even warping into a self-harming depression. Unaddressed anger is kind of like radioactivity. It doesn’t just disappear if you bury it. It leaks out and poisons anything in sight. And while this angers silently festers inside, it does take a toll on your emotions and your health.
The secret key
So why is it so important to understand the connection between anger and depression? Because you may not even realize on the surface how angry you have been. You may be unaware of how this suppressed anger has contributed to, or even caused your depression. Exploring your anger can be a key, or even the key to healing your depression.
In exploring my own anger, I learned one life changing lesson that turned out to be the key to interpreting my anger. The overarching theme of “all my little angers” was a lack of control in my life. At work, I often felt controlled and unfairly placed into situations that caused me huge stress and anxiety. In my relationships, I often felt ignored, manipulated and underappreciated. I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do with my career, and my relationships were often holding me back from pursuing things I really wanted to experience in life.
The anger enigma
My anger was telling me all along that there was something wrong in these places. But I had never learned to interpret what it was trying to say. It took me quite some therapy to start to decipher my anger and some of it is still a work in progress. The good news is that once you learn to really pay attention to your anger and give it the space it deserves to show you what is wrong, it can be a really constructive emotion.
In my life today I often stop when I feel that emotion that is just a bit past “annoyance” and I ask myself if I feel “wronged” in some way. Is this anger coming up more frequently in similar situations like a pattern? Sometimes these are things it helps to talk through with a therapist, as they can sometimes see patterns more easily because they are more emotionally removed from your situation.
Anger and women
In an attempt to better understand our anger, we have to note it when it first occurs so that we can respect it, hear what it is saying to us, and address it appropriately. In many societies, however, women have been socialized to be neat, agreeable, and polite members of society. We are taught early on that anger is “unbecoming” for a girl. We are socialized to understand that anger looks ugly on us and are often reminded that we should “smile more” even when we may be feeling upset.
Men, on the other hand, are often more encouraged to vent their anger in the open. Anger is seen as strength, and has been a constructive emotion for men from the battlefield to aggressive sports. Women do not enjoy the same arenas for expressing anger as men do in many societies and this has led to a common experience of suppressed anger for women, from kindergarten to nursing homes. Most importantly, men do not have the same consequences as women do if they show their anger openly. In the workforce, for example, it is often taboo for women to show open aggression or anger, but it is seen as “competitive” and “ambitious” for men.
Women are labeled as “angry” or “bitchy” when they express anger and often face discipline around being “nicer” and more “diplomatic”. Men do not hear that kind of feedback often. Because of the effect that anger can have on our bodies and lives, it is ever more important for women in particular to learn to express anger openly. It is crucial to allow ourselves to fully feel the emotion, no matter how uncomfortable that may feel at first.
Learning to allow ourselves to feel anger and acknowledging what it is telling us can be an important step in addressing the depression or other conditions it could be related to in our lives. That can be a vital step in breaking through your depression as well. Expressing how you feel without being afraid can be extremely difficult and sometimes even impossible. But it could very well be the key to healing your depression.
Healthy ways of coping
Understanding the complexity of ways in which anger can affect our mood and our lives, it becomes even more important to find healthy ways to diffuse and address anger when we first feel it. While not every situation is ideal for letting anger out the moment we feel it, just acknowledging that anger is rising up in us can be a very important first step. If we can learn to sit with that feeling so we can analyse it a little more, we may learn a lot about ourselves.
In the moment
Anger is a huge and sensitive topic. Often, it is not possible for people to truly express themselves for fear of the consequences. Domestic situations and the location where you live can have a massive impact on how you can express yourself. So, I understand that healing anger is not possible for everyone all the time.
But, it helps to be aware of what you are experiencing and the consequences of suppressing it.
If you are not able to openly express your anger and heal it, you may still be able to recognize it and work with it in private. You might be able to take a few minutes alone somewhere when you feel anger and just walk it off, journal about it, or listen to some music. The difficult part will be achieving healing, if a change in your situation is simply not possible.
For many of us, we do have the opportunity to seek help and to change the situation that makes us angry. In my own experience, my anger and my depression formed a chain reaction that kept me trapped. Once I was able to identify that I was feeling angry, I could work with the root causes. As I pinpointed the root causes, I was able to make changes to my personal situation. This led to being able to address my depression as well.
You may find yourself in a similar situation. After digging down, you may be surprised to find out that you are angry as well. Realizing this may become the light bulb moment you have been looking for, when it comes to your depression. And it may become the starting point to your own healing. Remember there is a link between depression and anger that we are often not aware of.
Frozen in fear
Now, you might feel some fear creeping in when we talk about changing your life situation. And without trying to scare you, there will be change. The sooner you get used to that thought, the quicker you will be able to heal. Because anger acts as a warning system that something is not working for you, the only solution will be to make a change. You will need to change the situation that is causing the anger and distress.
We often remain in situations that hurt us and make us angry because we are frozen in fear. If you know that your relationship is broken beyond repair and it is hurting you, the solution will be to get a divorce and leave the situation. This decision is difficult and you will consider all sorts of consequences like your children, your safety, how you will support yourself, where you will live, and more.
But, the truth remains that until you address the situation that makes you angry, you cannot move forward with your healing.
I found that once I addressed situations that were not serving me, I actually started to feel relief. The more I followed my authentic self and did the things that felt in line with who I am, the less angry I became. I learned to set boundaries and say “no” more often.
And although this was one of the most difficult things I have ever done, aligning myself with what feels good has been the spark to my healing. I encourage you to really find out who you are and how you want to live your life. You will find that as you align more with your authentic self, you can begin to heal your anger and your depression.
Let your voice be heard and speak out about what you need and want to be happy. You are a valuable individual and you deserve to live the best life you can.