Your question: Why do I become mean when I am anxious?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. Through this article I would like to explain to you why some people act rude or mean to others when they experience anxiety, explore how and why anxiety makes you feel more emotionally reactive, and indicate what strategies you can implement to avoid this in the future.

Anxiety has many forms of manifestation. Each person lives and experiences it in a unique way, with the common characteristic that it causes annoying physical and emotional symptoms. Although anxiety is necessary in small doses, because it keeps you alert of threats or problems of the daily life you are going through, it is problematic when it is intense and frequent, and when it causes problems in interpersonal relationships.

One of the symptoms of chronic anxiety (anxiety that occurs with great frequency and intensity in different areas of life) is irritability. The irritable attitude and anger are associated with anxiety since the annoying sensation of the symptoms of anxiety generates impotence, bewilderment and frustration in people.

For this reason, anxious people are prone to react in an irritable and “mean” way with others, even if the person in question is not attacking them or causing a real problem. If this is your case, you do not react this way because you are a bad person, but because the physical and emotional dysregulation that anxiety causes in your body keeps you in a state of agitation and irritability, which makes you respond rudely or rudely to others.

However, understanding that this problem is not your fault or associated with you being a bad person does not mean that you do not have a responsibility to address it. Acting rudely with others causes interpersonal relationships to weaken and distance, which in turn causes feelings of loneliness and sadness in the anxious person. Therefore, you should identify the source of your anxiety and the associated mean attitudes, in order to eventually apply strategies to deal with the problem.

Why do you feel upset when you are anxious?

It has been shown (1) that anxiety is closely related to irritability and the emotion of anger in general. The relationship lies in the fact that during periods of anxiety, people experience, along with bothersome physical symptoms, intrusive disturbing thoughts that disrupt daily functioning and generate dysfunctional ideas about reality.

Intrusive thoughts are defined as distinct, unwanted, and recurrent cognitive events that can interrupt the flow of thoughts and prevent objective activities; these cognitive events are normally followed by negative emotions and difficulty in controlling thoughts.

These thoughts may be, for example, the belief that everyone around you is annoying or unhelpful, that no one helps you properly at work or home, or that people in general want to hurt you. Even if you have no evidence or proof to support these intrusive thoughts, the associated emotion, which is anger, is expressed anyway, thus generating a rude and mean attitude towards other people.

One study(2) showed that irritability associated with anxiety is also linked to negative life experiences and emotional distress in general. Therefore, when you experience anxiety, the emotional fatigue you feel as a result of symptoms such as trouble sleeping, tachycardia and muscle tension, make you more likely to be irritable and take out your anger on the first person you meet.

What symptoms of anxiety are related to irritability?

Symptoms of anxiety related to irritability and rude treatment with other people are:

  • Insomnia
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Muscle tension
  • Tendency to react aggressively to the smallest things
  • Feeling of tiredness or recurrent fatigue
  • Haughty or rude attitude with others
  • Sarcastic and hurtful comments without provocation

How can you stop acting mean to others?

It is necessary that your base anxiety is the first thing to be addressed, since irritability is a consequence of this. Therefore, the strategies you should apply are related to the physical and emotional control of anxiety symptoms. If your irritability and rude treatment of others persists and worsens over time, I recommend that you seek professional help. 

Practice meditation and relaxation

Regular meditation and relaxation exercises are effective in reducing anxiety and irritability in the long term. You may find it difficult at first to create this “connection” as anxiety keeps you in a state of agitation and hypervigilance, but with practice it will become easier. In a quiet space, either sitting or lying down, close your eyes, rest one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. While you take slow breaths, three seconds inhaling and three seconds exhaling, feel how your body lightens and with it, the things that worry you and generate anxiety in your daily life. Apply this exercise for about 15 minutes a day.

Regulate your sleep schedule

When you do not sleep well, you are likely to be in a bad mood and irritable, which leads you to treat other people rudely. Therefore, you should set fixed schedules for going to sleep and waking up, reducing as much as possible the consumption of caffeine, nicotine and energy drinks at times close to sleep or wake up. If you feel that it is difficult or impossible to control your sleep schedule, it is advisable to consult a specialist in this area.

Monitor your thoughts

Intrusive thoughts that appear in anxiety may make you believe that everyone is your enemy or that all people are annoying, which leads you to act rudely towards others. It is important that you observe the thoughts that lead you to act rudely to others in order to respond to them, and thus, think before you do or say something that could be hurtful to the other person. For example, if your thought is “here comes my friend, she’s probably going to bother me with something”, the logical response would be “I appreciate my friend, it’s not her fault that I’m feeling irritable today, so I’ll listen to her and respond as best I can”.

In my experience…

While it is important to understand that it is not your fault to feel anxious and therefore be irritable, it is your responsibility to control your attitudes when it affects yourself or others. Irritability causes people to respond or treat others meanly, and this in turn affects your interpersonal relationships. You are not doing this because you are a bad person, but because you are having trouble regulating your emotions.

I believe you have the ability to improve and heal these feelings of discomfort you are experiencing now. The fact that you are seeking professional help through this message proves it to me, and I applaud you for making that decision and being on track to improve your mental health and overall, your physical health.

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