Stress, Anger, and Violent Protests: How Are They Connected?

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When it comes to our emotions, there’s no way to avoid feeling them. Some emotions are easier to process than others and have minimal impacts on those around us. Anger is one such emotion that can negatively affect our social connections, our communities, and our health and well-being. Have you found yourself getting more irritated in traffic over the last few months? Perhaps you have less patience with cashiers or children telling you stories with a lot of unnecessary details. Do you feel guilty for cutting people off, yelling, or simply being a grumpy presence lately? All of this could be due to your body’s stress response.

As with any emotion, certain things can lead to anger other than simply being frustrated or angry. Prolonged stress can lead to irritability, anger, and even outbursts of violence in some situations. Why might this be? Let’s take a closer look at the relationship between stress and anger.

How are stress and anger similar or different?

To identify how stress and anger are similar, we must first turn to the brain. When you feel stressed, your body’s fight, flight or freeze response is triggered.

Fight – irritability, anger
Flight – avoidance, distraction
Freeze = anxiety, indecisiveness

This response causes you to release a cascade of neurochemicals and hormones. Two essential stress molecules to note are adrenaline and cortisol.

Adrenaline is a hormone that sparks your body to prepare for action. It causes an increase in heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, and more rapid breathing. These things prepare the body for fight, flight, or freeze as your muscles and organs receive more blood and oxygen.

Cortisol is the primary stress hormone in your body. It’s responsible for sounding the alarm when your body perceives a potential threat. When we think of stress, both adrenal & cortisol are being released. However, research has shown that when you experience anger, cortisol levels decrease.

What does this mean?

Both stress and anger involve adrenaline, but if cortisol decreases when you experience anger and is produced when you’re stressed, can stress and anger be related?

The short answer here is yes.

As stress causes an increase in blood flow and oxygen, our bodies are getting ready for action. This increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen is also typical when we feel anger. When a person is under prolonged stress, anger is a natural response as the experience of this emotion is similar to how our body responds to stress. When someone finally explodes from prolonged stress, they were already primed and ready for anger.

Let’s look at the COVID-19 pandemic as an example of prolonged stress. We see a lot of irritability, anger, and even violent protests that arise from this prolonged state of tension and confusion — or freeze, fight or flight response.

How anger rises out of stress:

Stress is our body preparing for action. This action could come in the form of fight, flight, or freeze — and, for some, fawn (or submission). Anger could be categorized as one of these responses (often fight or flight) and is a response to our body’s stress response and stress hormones. When we feel prolonged stress, we need to have some form of response to finish this cycle. This is how we end up in situations where a person or group of people appear to have escalating anger out of nowhere. The prolonged feeling of stress was finally too much, and in an attempt to complete the fight or flight response, they experienced an outburst of anger.

What can you do to avoid an outburst of anger or violence from stress?

No one likes to feel like they’re at the mercy of their emotions. That being said, there’s no way we’re going to rid ourselves of anger. Anger serves a purpose and shouldn’t be considered a “bad” or “negative” emotion. However, when our anger isn’t expressed healthily, it can cause damage.  

To avoid an uncontrolled outburst of anger caused by your stress response, try these things:

1. Avoid sugary foods, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and other stimulants that can make it hard to direct your emotions healthily. If you’re addicted to these, don’t stop suddenly as you could experience withdrawal & more anger. Taper & reduce slowly.

2. Exercise regularly to help your body healthily regulate stress hormones. Getting your heart rate up with exercise improves your mood!

3. Learn new communication skills to help you feel heard when stressed rather than turning to bad habits such as yelling. Try the sandwich method, where you sandwich two positives with the “meat,” or potential negative. For example, “Nice to see you! I wasn’t too happy about that last comment you made. It felt hurtful. I am hoping you didn’t mean it that way. After we discuss, let’s go for a walk or get coffee. It’s a beautiful day.”

4. Meditation and deep, controlled breathing have been shown to reduce stress and lower blood pressure. These will quickly reduce both stress & anger — try them!
We’re all experiencing stress and confusion right now, and it’s essential to be compassionate towards those who may seem irritable or short-tempered. It can be hard to regulate our emotions when our bodies act like shaken cocktails of stress and anger hormones. If you’re looking for help with an anger issue that you believe is more than what you can manage on your own, please click here and get in touch with me.

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