What Does Anger Look Like?

Last updated: November 2021

Anyone who has been diagnosed with heart failure has had anger at some point. Anger at these symptoms, which carry a high degree of burden. Anger at the fatigue, anger at the breathlessness, anger at the salt and fluid restrictions, anger at the multitude of pills – many of which make us feel like crap but help keep our hearts pumping – anger at the friends who drift away, and the list goes on.

What does anger look like? This is helpful for caregivers to understand, too, as anger might not look the way we expect it to.

What is behind it?

In my experience anger is a secondary emotion. What does that mean? Typically a primary emotion, like fear or sadness, can be found beneath the anger. Any emotion can be a primary emotion, like worry, jealousy, shame, disappointment, guilt and frustration (to name a few). This is just saying that the first emotion makes me feel uncomfortable, out of control and vulnerable, so people subconsciously switch to anger instead.1

From a personal perspective, I would say that my heart failure has brought about so many emotions. So much sadness, fear, worry and frustration. I know that I can have a short fuse with my family, and for that I am truly, utterly, sorry.

A lot of emotions

When I moved home after my second heart attack because I needed help, I was not the easiest roommate. From their perspective, I can imagine that caregivers are thinking that the patient must be grateful for the extra help. From at least my perspective, I can say that I was, and remain, grateful; however, the feelings of gratitude are overwhelmed by so much else.

For example, fear of what the future holds, frustration at what I've lost and what I can no longer do, and sadness at what I've lost and all of the sacrifices I must make to have a minimal quality of life. While other people, including myself, used to be able to do what they wanted, go where they wanted, eat what they wanted, etc., there is no longer much in my life that is NOT thought out...it stirs up a lot of stuff!

I am also not surprised that our bodies switch to anger. Personally, after going through so much and shedding so many tears, the thought of sitting in my feelings of anger, sadness and fear seem like sinking further into the vat of loss of control when I have already lost so much! It is like that scene from "Steel Magnolias" where Sally Field is reflecting on her daughter's death and she is saying, "I wanna know why, I wanna know why, I wanna know why my baby's life is over...Oh god, I wanna know WHHHY?! Lord I wish I could understand.. I don't think I can take this. I just want to hit somebody until they feel as bad as I do. I want to hit something. I want to hit it hard."

What anger looks like

What can anger look like? Anger can result in muscle tension, headaches and an increased heart rate.2 Anger can also manifest in more physical things like throwing things, yelling, as well as verbal behaviors like cursing and arguing, In my case, I would probably describe it as really short fuse. It's not fair to my parents, but I was doing the best I could.

What to do about it

I am not an expert, so as always speak with a medical professional as well. This is also the "million dollar question," right? There are no easy answers or "quick fixes" to realities of loss, anger, sadness and fear that can fuel anger in heart failure patients.

I would say, though, that having everyone understand that the anger may not be easy to live with, but is a result of deeper things, makes it easier to cope with. I think that is the key - coping! If more honest and empathetic conversations can be had, and people are encouraged (and supported) in sitting with and feeling their feelings, they may get to the deeper emotions that are fueling outward behaviors.

I cannot guarantee that there are answers to these primary emotions, but in order to have any hope in managing and coping, we must correctly identify what is going on!

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