While sadness is indeed a key symptom of depression, it’s not the only way it shows up. Anger or irritability is actually one of the primary ways that depression shows up in children and teens. But that anger doesn’t just turn off when you turn 18. So, today we’re going to peel back the layers and explore how depression manifests as anger and irritability.
The Surprising Symptom of Depression
I recently read the story of a nurse named Ebony. She went through this period of being angry about everything. Even the smallest things would lead to a flash of anger. She said, “If you had told me in the beginning that my irritability was related to depression, I would probably be livid.”
Now, when most people think of depression, the emotion they think of is sadness. The media portrays the depressed person as struggling to get out of bed, crying, and drowning in despair.
And while sadness is indeed a key symptom of depression, it’s not the only way it shows up. Anger or irritability is actually one of the primary ways that depression shows up in children and teens. But that anger doesn’t just turn off when you turn 18.
So today we’re going to peel back the layers and explore how depression manifests as anger and irritability, a lot of the time.
To answer this, we need to understand two basic coping mechanisms humans use when dealing with pain: internalizing and externalizing.
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Depression isn’t just feeling sad; it’s a whole-body experience that can impact every aspect of your life. Symptoms include losing pleasure in activities, changes in appetite or sleep, and often feeling sad, empty, or hopeless.
But researchers estimate that 30 to 40 percent of people experience rage or anger as part of their depression. Sometimes these emotions can be so overpowering that one researcher calls them anger attacks. He relates them to panic attacks.
Other research showed that of 500 people with depression, over half of them experienced anger attacks but that when they received treatment, like antidepressant medication, that anger subsided for the majority of them.
Another long-term study found that anger is associated with more severe or chronic depression, higher rates of substance abuse, and it’s also linked to familial bipolar disorder. So why is anger associated with depression?
Five Reasons Why Depression Might Show Up As Anger
There’s at least five reasons why depression might show up as anger, and the first one is externalizing versus internalizing depression. When faced with painful feelings some people internalize their emotions.
They direct feelings of disappointment, guilt, or distress towards themselves. They might think, “I’m such a failure. I’m a burden. Nobody wants me in their life.” So, this is the face of depression that we’re most familiar with. And strangely, internalizing is actually a subconscious attempt to escape painful feelings of sadness.
If I’m incurably defective then there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s almost comforting to wallow in self-deprecation.
This is using internalizing as a defense mechanism. Now, on the other hand, some people externalize these feelings. So instead of pointing their pain inward, they project it outward onto other people or situations.
It can feel really comforting to blame others for your pain. So, they might say, “Everyone else is a jerk” or “People are so inconsiderate” or “Why bother? Why bother trying when the world is such a terrible place?” Or they might say, “Oh, it’s just hopeless because nobody cares.”
So, when depression shows up as anger or irritability it’s often because the person is grappling with these feelings of despair or worthlessness and the way they manage these feelings is through hostility or aggression.
So that’s externalizing. You take all those huge feelings and you bounce them outwards in an attempt to feel better.
Now, let’s talk about the second reason depression might show up as anger.
So, depression impacts your ability to regulate your emotions. It makes it hard to work through feelings. This might make people more reactive. They might be quick to snap, argue, or show impatience.
They might have a low tolerance for frustration and be easily triggered by situations that others would find minor. And this also might explain why anger shows up more for children or adolescents; they often don’t have the emotional vocabulary to express their feelings.
Depression can leave people feeling powerless or out of control in their lives. So sometimes anger, expressing anger can be an attempt to like regain control or express power or autonomy.
Number three: depression colors your worldview. So, depression impacts your perception. It alters how you see the world. People living with depression are more negatively biased in how they see the world. Small stressors feel much bigger, and big stressors feel overwhelming.
Neutral comments might seem like personal attacks, or a small mistake you make might feel like the end of the world.
So, when this is overwhelming, they might be more likely to blow up in anger. And, you know, people with depression, because of this negativity bias, people with depression may feel misunderstood or isolated, which is also really frustrating.
There’s a few more reasons why depression might mask itself as irritability or anger.
So, number four is suppressed feelings. For some people anger can be a defensive response. It can serve as a shield. It keeps other people at a distance, and it protects you from feeling these perceived threats or hurt or feeling sad or worthless is super vulnerable, and a lot of people have been taught that it’s shameful to feel this way.
So sometimes it’s just a lot more comfortable to express anger instead. So sometimes people suppress these tender feelings of hurt or sadness or grief, and they use anger to mask their feelings.
It’s a way of creating a barrier between yourself and others to, you know, protect yourself from these big, deep, painful feelings. Problem is the more you stuff into a box, the more likely it’s going to explode outward when it’s touched.
Okay. Number five: depression causes physical pain and emotional exhaustion. So, depression isn’t just in your head; it’s often accompanied by physical symptoms like aches, pains, physical sensitivity to sounds or touch. People with depression often feel completely exhausted.
And that’s on top of the chronic emotional pain that someone’s going through. So, this constant, pervasive sadness that characterizes depression can be emotionally exhausting. I think that’s one of the things you hear the most from someone who’s depressed, is they are tired.
When you’re physically or emotionally drained you’re likely to have a lower distress tolerance. People feel on edge or they feel testy. Right?
They, this leads to explosions of irritability or anger. I think we can all relate to this. Like, when I’m really tired, I’m much more likely to snap at my kids than when I’m well rested. But with depression, it’s not just like that they feel occasionally tired; it’s that they feel tired all the time.
So that can feel really overwhelming, and it makes sense why they just might seem angrier.
What to do When Depression Shows up as Anger or Irritability
So, what can you do if you or someone you know is experiencing depression that’s showing up as anger or irritability?
Let’s talk about some of the steps you can take. So, first thing I would say is like find appropriate ways to express all those painful feelings so that they don’t keep bottling up. You could try therapy or start journaling. You could learn how to work through emotions and challenge negative thoughts.
Depression can often feel overwhelming because it’s just this accumulation of thousands of tiny thoughts or actions over the years that have built up, but you can learn. When you learn to process emotions, many of the symptoms of depression can be resolved.
So that’s the first thing I would say. And if you don’t know how, I do have a course on it: How to Process Your Emotions.
The second thing I would say is take steps to increase your physical resilience. So, depression is as much in the body as it is in the mind, and so anything you can do to improve your physical health is going to help treat your depression. Start exercising, if you can.
Try to get enough sleep. Set some boundaries on your stressors. Take breaks. And try to get nutrients into your body, even if it’s just like a multivitamin.
So even small steps can make it so that you aren’t in as much pain and that you could increase your ability to handle the difficult things in life.
If you don’t really know where to start with that, I do have another course on this called Change Your Brain. And it teaches you how to create some pretty big changes in your mental health, pretty big improvements in your mental health that are backed by research, by doing these like tiny steps, one small change a month in these little increments.
And in the long run, you know, evidence shows it can be very effective at treating depression.
So how can you help someone else who may have depression but is irritable or angry? So, first thing I would say is like they might be blaming you for how they feel or expressing a lot of anger in your direction, but it’s important to clarify that they are responsible for their feelings and actions.
It’s not your job to change them or walk on eggshells to keep them happy. So, this verges on codependency, and you’re trying to control them, which is not your job.
It’s poor boundaries, and it’s just not healthy. So instead, allow them to feel their feelings, but remind yourself that even if they say it’s about you, they are responsible for how they feel and act.
This is an important part of healthy boundaries that lead to a healthy relationship. Next thing I would say is, don’t jump on the anger train with them. When someone’s angry or blaming, it’s easy to want to argue or attack back at them. It’s natural to want to feel defensive, but that’s not going to be helpful.
Try to look beneath the surface of their anger and see if there’s some more tender feelings under there. Maybe they’re feeling scared, insecure, or overwhelmed. Understanding and validating all those complex feelings is a crucial for step two: supporting them.
And then another thing you can try is mirroring their feelings back to them.
So, you could use reflective listening to help them make words for what they’re saying. Like, “Oh, seems like you’re feeling really angry. Sounds like you’re feeling really hopeless about the situation. Is that right?” Right? This is reflective listening. You’re bouncing it back at them what they’re feeling. And then you can offer support, say something like, “How can I help? What’s one small thing I could do to support you? Would you like me to help you find a counselor?” Things like that.
Depression is Treatable
Okay. Remember Ebony, the nurse? She had a caring friend who noticed that she seemed kind of off. She wasn’t her normal happy self. And her friend gently encouraged Ebony to get some help. Now, because her friend was kind and compassionate but firm about it, Ebony started counseling, and there she was able to talk about some unresolved trauma from her childhood.
And therapy helped her realize that she was still very angry and distraught about it. So, because she hadn’t processed those emotions, the anger was coming out on the people she cared about, like her sister and her husband and her co-workers.
So, after talking through all that trauma, working to learn some new skills to work through those emotions, Ebony was able to really treat that depression that was underneath all of that anger, and she got feeling way better and she wasn’t as angry all the time.
So even though anger and irritability can be a sign of depression, it’s not hopeless. Depression is totally treatable. With the right support and resources, you and those you love can learn to stop suppressing your feelings. You can learn to process your emotions and actually resolve them.
You got this.
Now, if you’d like to learn about tiny steps and improve mental health in around 15 minutes a day, check out my Change Your Brain course. You’ll learn research-backed skills to fight depression and anxiety and how to actually create a system to put them into practice and change your life. Click the link below.
Thank you for watching, and take care.