One of the harder parts of living with anxiety is dealing with how the people around us perceive the various outward manifestations of the disorder. As an example, when I’m having a panic attack, I become sweaty, incoherent, and my heart races. Some people are likely to think I’m having a heart attack, rather than “just” having issues with anxiety.

Heart attacks aside, people often see the physical characteristics of anxiety as anger – or, at the very least, they think the anxious person is annoyed with them. It’s not hard to see why people would reach that conclusion. When I’m anxious, I become withdrawn, irritable, and am quick to snap at those around me. This misunderstanding turns people who should be allies against each other. The person suffering from anxiety now has to contend with a defensive – and possibly angry – person. And instead of helping their anxious friend, they themselves are upset. Anxiety has a way of compounding problems and pulling people in – and that is a cycle worth breaking.

How Can You Tell the Difference Between Anger and Anxiety?

In order to tell the difference between anger and anxiety, it helps to understand what the terms actually mean. First, anxiety is defined as an unpleasant state of mental uneasiness, nervousness, apprehension and obsession or concern. Anger is defined as a strong feeling of displeasure, hostility or antagonism towards someone or something, usually combined with an urge to harm (physically or verbally).

As you can see, just because the outward symptoms may look the same, the motivation behind each is vastly different. Another way to look at it is that anxiety makes a person retreat and anger pushes a person to advance. This motivation provides clues to help you differentiate.

When it comes to dealing with people who are behaving in some atypical manner, it’s always best to take a few moments to assess the entire situation before getting involved. By observing, you can see if someone is trying to “get away” or trying to “start something.” If they are trying to get away, it’s a pretty safe bet that anxiety is driving their actions.

The Very Best Way to Discern Between Anger and Anxiety

My grandfather often says that the simplest solutions are usually the most effective. The best way to discern between anger and anxiety fits that aphorism perfectly: ask them.

Eliminate guesswork, don’t jump to conclusions, and keep your own emotions in check. Just look the person directly in the eye and calmly say, “Is everything okay?”

Then sit back and listen to their answer. We can all learn a lot by just talking to one another.

Gabe Howard is a popular speaker, writer, and advocate who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. He is an award-winning writer and the creator of the official bipolar shirt. (Get yours now!) Gabe can be reached on Facebook, via email, or via his website, www.GabeHoward.com.