Are depression and anger linked to one another? Depression is one of the most crippling mental health challenges facing men and women all over the world today. What pictures come into your mind when you imagine depression?
One of the most difficult facets of depression is the confusion it brings. It can feel like wading through a thick, murky swamp shrouded in dense fog. My clients have described the experience of depression as “feeling lost” or even “losing myself.” As a Christian therapist, I want to help people make better sense of their depression so they can navigate its dark paths with purpose and hope, holding on to an enduring identity in Christ.
The Red WireIn action films, our hero locates a bomb with a clock ticking down to detonation. Disarming the bomb is a matter of cutting the right wires in the right sequence. Cut the wrong wire, and the bomb will explode instantly. You’ve probably felt the suspense rising as the hero races against the clock to make the right call and (hopefully) save the day.
Addressing mental health problems like depression is not nearly this simplistic (or dramatic), but there are some similarities. Depression is complex, like a tangled knot of multicolored wires. There are many different “strands” to explore in search of greater clarity.
While there is no one “wire” that if cut will diffuse the problem entirely, there are various threads that need to be addressed individually. In this article, we will take a look at one of the more hidden components of depression. Let’s call it the “red wire”.
Lights, Camera, Depression
Imagine you are a Hollywood film director. You need to portray a woman suffering from depression. How would you set the scene so that the audience vividly experiences what she is going through?
You might use low lighting and a sparse, unkempt bedroom for the set. Maybe you would instruct the effects team to add a soft drizzle of rain pattering on the windows. What kind of musical score would you select? How might you convey a strong sense of isolation? How might you communicate the feeling of melancholy?
Most importantly, how would you direct your actress to behave? What would you want her to say or do? Would you instruct her to sob quietly, holding her head in her hands? Or perhaps to lie motionless on a rumpled bed staring blankly up at the ceiling?
With an eye on the Oscars, you may push your actress for a more theatrical performance involving passionate weeping and rocking back and forth in the fetal position. What would your script be for the scene?
The way you would design this scene says a lot about how you view depression. Did you consider anger as one of the emotions to represent on screen? Most of you probably didn’t, which makes sense because we tend to associate sadness as depression’s fundamental emotion. However, it may surprise you to learn that anger is often a primary emotion present wherever depression is found.
One reason we don’t usually associate anger with depression is that the type of anger that is revealed by depression is less obvious. We can all recognize “hot” anger when it shows itself in the form of rage or abuse, but what about more subtle, internal forms of anger like bitterness, vindictiveness, indignation, or self-contempt?
These types of anger often exist beneath the surface and contribute to depression. The power of these “colder” forms of anger is in their hiddenness. They thrive in the dark.
Depression can sometimes shed light on hidden anger we are not prepared to acknowledge. We tend to think of anger as a “negative emotion”, and so we don’t want to admit to our very real struggles with it.
The anger that we do acknowledge feels so righteous and justified that we would never identify it as a problem. It simply becomes part of our perspective, the internal background noise of our lives.
As Edward T. Welch writes, “Remember that anger hides. The angry person is always the last person to know that he or she is angry. We will acknowledge that we are depressed, fearful, or in pain, but we are blind to our anger. Anger is always another person’s problem, not our own.”
The Power of Agency
Anger that is either hidden or “another person’s problem” is difficult to overcome. How can you respond to something you aren’t aware of? Or how can you affect something outside of your control (like someone else’s behavior)? To gain greater freedom to respond to emotional states (like anger) and mental health struggles (like depression), it is important to identify your underlying thoughts and feelings.
The field of psychology sometimes calls this freedom to respond “agency.” Agency is empowering to the sufferer because it gives her a role in responding to her suffering rather than purely playing the part of a victim.
To be sure, when you struggle with depression, you are in one sense a “victim” of the inescapable conditions of your circumstances, but in my view, the story does not end there. The good news is that you still have a card to play. You have what Viktor Frankl called “The defiant power of the human spirit,” with which you can respond to your suffering in a meaningful way.
Our Thoughts: A Broken Record
Sometimes people debate whether anger causes depression or vice versa, much like the old “chicken or the egg” paradox posed by Greek philosophers. For this article, we don’t need to answer the question. We can be satisfied with the knowledge that anger often coexists with depression, and that the two feed off and contribute to one another.
How does anger contribute to depression? One of the ways that therapists like myself approach depression is by identifying the “automatic thoughts” that play on repeat in a person’s mind like a broken record when he or she struggles with depression.
For example, thoughts like, “I hope so-and-so has to suffer like I’m suffering” or “I’m such a loser, I don’t deserve to be happy” might play on repeat in a person’s mind until they produce a sense of bitterness or hopelessness that perpetuates the state of depression.
Anger at Yourself: A Recipe for Continued Depression
One of the most prominent attributes of depression is the sense of isolation it produces. Since the struggle often becomes very individual and internal, anger and frustration at oneself are extremely common. In his book Good and Angry, David Powlison describes the way that anger gets directed against ourselves when we struggle with depression:
Anger motivates us to think, talk, and act to punish the wrongdoer-only this time the guilty party is yourself…You hate yourself simply for being yourself. Your crime is that you exist. You’ll never matter. Your life is pointless. You are a failure-a hopeless nobody. Though you can’t put your finger on any one thing, you live under a pervasive sense of condemnation. Through every waking hour, your conscience broadcasts in the language of reproach and self-negation.
If you’ve never experienced it yourself, just imagine how dark and discouraging an internal narrative like this would be. Self-anger can become a crushing weight that holds a person beneath the suffocating tide of depression if left unchecked. As a Christian, I believe that the best way to counter self-anger is with the voice of a loving God.
Writing of this “Father of all mercies,” Powlison continues, “When your own heart is merciless, and you spiral into yourself, he invites you to reach out and ask for help. He leans in and listens. He knows your sins and your sorrows. He knows how you think and feel. He cares. He will take you by the hand and lead you back into the light.”
Finally, I just want to add a quick word about the potential benefits of healthy anger. Anger is an emotion that can serve good purposes and was designed by God to do so.
After describing the many ways that unchecked anger can go wrong in her book on the seven capital vices, Rebecca Konynkyk DeYoung writes, “When it is good, anger is a passion for justice, motivated by love . . . The fiercer the love and the greater the good at stake, the more intense our capacity for anger. Great love is the root of great anger.”
Even when depression is present, anger rightly applied can be helpful rather than harmful. I’ve had the privilege of working alongside many brave men and women who leverage anger (against evil, sin, and injustice) into a motivating force to drive them out of self-pity, hopelessness, and defeatism. DeYoung quotes the great Josef Pieper who wrote that “The power of anger is actually the power of resistance in the soul.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression and anger, please don’t hesitate to reach out to one of the counselors on this site. We would be honored to come alongside you during this difficult season. The great Author of creation wants you to know that there are chapters in your story still to be revealed.
“Sitting by the Lake”, Courtesy of Guillaume de Germain, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Girl in a dimly lit hallway”, Courtesy of Eric Ward, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Red Lights Through Glass”, Courtesy of Vlad Tchomplalov, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Waiting for a Lover”, Courtesy of Jonatan Becerra, Unsplash.com, CC0 License