Managing Anger, Aggression and Depression

Mental health professionals have known for a long time that there’s a relationship between anger and depression. And clinicians steeped in the psychodynamic tradition have often touted the adage that depression is, at its heart, “anger turned inward.” But what exactly does this saying mean? And just what relationship does anger have to depression?

Angry Depressives

In recent years, many news stories have revealed an all-too-common profile.  A socially awkward, isolated, or rejected individual is angry with and at the world. He or she is also down on him/herself. The person has such intense rage that directing it inward would almost certainly mean self-destruction. But having reached a breaking point, they decide to take out their wrath on as many as possible. And in the aftermath, they take themselves out in a perverted blaze of glory. At least people will know they were here and how badly they hurt. And someone will also have paid a dear price for all the pain they felt was inflicted on them. Moreover, by ensuring their own demise, they won’t have to face continued unpleasantness.

The scenario above describes the “angry depressive” personality. And investigators have long looked for ways to better recognize and understand such types. Knowing their potential danger, the idea is to get them help before it’s too late. But there’s still a lot of debate about the validity of the angry depressive construct.

Over the years, psychology has offered many explanations of depression. There’s the classical notion that depression is “anger turned inward.” Then there’s the once revolutionary but now commonly accepted “learned helplessness” model. And of course, there’s the “medical model.” And in the 80s and 90s psychiatry pushed hard for all mental health conditions to be seen as biochemical imbalances best resolved with prescription drugs. But, I’m a clinician who’s always taken a holistic approach to understanding and treating human illness. So, I’ve long striven to put all the different perspectives into the proper balance.

A Model for Depression

I’ve worked with hundreds of individuals with various types and levels of depression. And I have observed a typical pattern of progression to their illness. First, they were heavily emotionally invested in securing something from their “outer world.” Second, they experienced the limited power they had secure it and became frustrated and angry. Third, instead of retreating or changing course or approach, they dug in their heels and invested even more heavily. This made them even more frustrated, and angry. Fourth, 4) they directed their anger outward, taking it out on people, places, and things. And Fifth, when that proved fruitless or ultimately unsatisfying, they turned their anger on themselves. They’d come to see themselves and their own powerlessness as the real “enemy.”

My character-impaired patients taught me a lot about anger, aggression, and violence. My experience with relationship partners of disturbed characters taught me a lot, too. I became more acutely aware of just how much fighting people do in their lives. And I realized how undisciplined many had become about the ways they fought. Along the way, it became clear that fighting a lost cause is the behavioral formula for depression. Mastering the “8th Commandment” we’ve been talking about is key. Disciplining our aggressive instincts means not fighting battles we haven’t the power to win. And we empower ourselves when we invest our energy where we do have power: our own behavior.


You can access more articles on anger, aggression, and depression. Read, for example: Is There a Behavioral Formula for Depression? I also address this issue in each of my four books.

Talk to me directly on Character Matters live Sunday, December 9 at 7 pm Eastern.

19 thoughts on “Managing Anger, Aggression and Depression

  1. Thank you Dr. Simon. The link out is very good too with the 4 point formula.

    Reading helps me with self-awareness and changing my perspective in a more positive or less-stuck direction (for example, knowing what others, even fictional characters, go through helps me not to take things so personally, or feel so alone in my anger or sadness or whatever.)

    I came across this article on literature the other day that explains it nicely, called “What is Literature For”:

  2. My husbands depression definatlly turned inward destroying his immune system then allowing a MRSA abscess to form in his Spine leaving him without nerve impulse in his legs, He Has the last four years become violent to the point He will not take and time somebody says no he wont he just says want to bet and beats the living daylights out of them. With me four years ago January he came homer from a stress center after becoming very angry I had had an affair with an old boyfriend. I was not expecting him to come home walking with a cane but in a wheel chair. Apparently the Fracturing the other mans scull with that cane thrown like a spear then the beating he delivered after he dropped the other man for sweeping his cane did not get any of the head of steam he had built the last 31 years over no sex, No time off and No vacation time between 1981 and 2009 He just set himself opposite to everyone in deciding what he deserved. It was bad enough that after 2001 He was forced to work holidays with firearms The Last vacation I went on to Europe was done with my arm in a sling after being thrown across a TSA office for canceling his vacation to let a two year seniority have it he worked next to for a honey moon. I was setting ne for his 35 years seniority up to st criox that January for five weeks as the ultimate surprise. It was a time we time frame we had tried to get him to take since 1987 to keep out of everyone else’s way. To get his passport back from his father He had to have his fingers pried off his throat all because he had not been allowed the times he wanted since 1981.

    I have tried to keep peace in the area by offering myself as the reward if he cooperated with people in the community but when his spin was fused In 2009 from the MRSA Abscess leaving no nerve impulse below his upper legs I thought any chance of a sex life with him was done, I found out two weeks after they took him to the stress center that I was not getting off easy.
    He came home on an evening that I had promised to go to a dinner event with his mother, father and his fathers best friend when the center sent him home. I walked out of the bedroom just finishing getting geting ready to go when I ran right into my very angry and sarcastic husband who within the next 45 minute Raped me telling me I had not repaid him for the life I stole from him.. And his fathers best friend demanded entrance a bit latter to talk to me and ended up hitting in a concrete drive after my husband threw him of the porch I was sitting in a dressing gown trying to think how it came to this. Using weapons to intimidate has no fear for him IN 2014 he was left unharnmed on our porch after putting his chest to two men holding a 45 and nine mm on him and telling them to stop being cowards, pull the dam triggers so he could meet them in hell to show them to their own lake of fire We ran for his fathers car knowing he was insane now, He showed up twenty minutes after where we were having breakfast and his cane swung four times leaving the two men open to the jaw bone and he was threatening to run his cane through his father one second for each year of his interference in our marriage was how long he was going to take to impale him. 32 seconds. Its been a terror trying to gain any discussion from him how toi come up with satisfactory solutions for everyone, Its his way or broken body parts.

    I just don’t know how to gain the peace I have tried to get for 34 years now.

  3. Dr. Simon’s model of Anger, Aggression and Depression, to my understanding, is speaking of expectations (emotionally invested in securing something from their “outer world”) and how, when our expectations are thwarted, we can become frustrated, angry and depressed.

    It is very common for people to blame themselves for being “failures” in their career, or to blame others (for example, immigrants or women) for taking their jobs, or lowering wages. This article is very relevant:

    It explains how our misinformed expectations of ourselves, our economy and society can lead us to harmful conclusions, cause us to fight unnecessarily, and feel like we have failed.

    “The problem with the modern world is that it does not stop lending us extremely high expectations”.

    “In the modern age, it isn’t just that we suffer from what we ourselves don’t achieve, we’re also agonised by what we can see other people achieving. We end up at once crushed and envious.”

    It’s a long read, but section VII (8) on Equal Opportunity (an expectation) is particularily good. Here, I understand the word “pretensions” to mean “expectations”.

    The article speaks to valuing ourselves and others based on character rather than income or job title, recognizing we are not alone in our plight, being more compassionate with ourselves, and redefining our notions of success.

    1. Hi Anne,

      A few years ago I did a great deal of reading about the Great Depression. I think that some of the interpersonal dynamics in couple’s relationships from that era, hold true today.

      Job loss caused one to become demoralized–deflated. While in this state, the man became highly sensitized to failure and then began to retrospectively regard his life through the lens of chronic failure.

      A formerly ‘alpha male’ suddenly lost social status and became a nobody. Unfortunately, many women, rather than trying to offset these dynamics, would join the chorus of self doubt the dispossessed man felt, through criticism and comparing him to those who were still employed.

      Today, those who are idled by automation, in the rust belt, for example, do so against a highly aggressive and narcissistic cultural backdrop.

      They are more likely to mirror back the culture’s own values by becoming aggressive as a response to demoralizing circumstances. During the Great Depression, men rode the rails, or curled up and died inside. It was a more humble, gentler and conservative time.

      Women are more resilient in the face of this kind of adversity.

      I am trying to think of the causes of my depression as a child. I was uniquely sensitive to self criticism. I would imagine I was a terrible person over the slightest thing. That seemed to be how it started. It would start with intense anxiety and that was followed by terrible depression.

      1. Interesting reflections Lisa. Yes, those dynamics you speak of during the Great Depression are still with us.

        I’ve noticed that many men seem to get most of their sense of identity and validation from their ability to provide for their family. Because of this, they do not develop or value other aspects of themselves, which is so unfortunate. I agree with you, that their unsympathetic wives often make them feel worse, or guilt them into working at dangerous, stressful or soul-sucking jobs because our society places so much value on wealth. I know several men who were deeply wounded by the attitude of their wives.

        Women are more resilient, but why? Is it because we don’t identify so much as “bread winners”? or do we have lower career/income expectations than men? Job loss does not scare me, because I have never had secure work, nor do I have the expectation that any job I have is secure. (In fact the idea of doing the same job for decades terrifies me: the monotony and predictablitity of it all, which makes me admire men who often do just that, who soldier on year after year to provide for their families). I have also watched and read about men who fall to pieces after losing their job of 20 years, because it never occurred to them that this was inevitable at some point in time.

        I have women friends who had great jobs and income who are going through similar demoralizing and depressive phases after being laid off, because they can’t find jobs in the careers they trained and worked in for decades. There is so much competition out there for these fewer and fewer high status / high income jobs. I also know people who are retired from good jobs, who, if they had to start over today, would not be qualified for those good jobs. They lucked out entering the workforce when they did, when things were much less competitive, and benefited from it. They don’t realize this and can have unrealistic expectations and criticisms of younger people struggling to get a foothold in this changed world of work.

        Depression as a young child. That has to be tough to deal with. Makes me wonder if perhaps you held unrealistic expectations of perfection for yourself. But where does that come from when one is so young?

  4. Years ago I worked with a woman who could turn a phrase on a dime even when faced with negative outcomes and look at the bright side.

    Here’s an example; Her husband came off the road from his sales position and walked in the door and said to his wife that he’d just lost his job and she replied, “Oh that’s good I’ll get to see more of you now.”

    I thought that was the nicest thing to do for her husband.

    1. That’s a loving couple, as it should be with a spouse/mate. You know she had to be worried but she held it together for him.

  5. Anne, thanks for your response. You are a very wise woman. I think that woman don’t base their value and worth on being the protector, provider, quite so much. Though, as single parents they are, unfortunately, thrust into that role. And it is tough as heck but more as a survival problem. For men it is both survival and ego. A double whammy.

    Sydney, I have been in the same position, as a spouse, and had to become a full time cheer leader and keep reminding my husband that we would be fine and that it wasn’t his fault and to pursue some of his dreams while he was unemployed.

    Another thing I did and think that everybody has to keep this in mind. When people are not working, if they are not actively looking every waking hour, they are perceived as being slackers. But, it is really not a good idea to sit at a desk and hyper focus, sometimes. For many people, getting out and doing novel things, taking long walks, helps to stave off depression and also is a good way to come up with new ideas. Our best ideas for work and creative endeavours seem to come, out of the blue, when we are doing something else. The answers seem to find us, not the other way around.

    I had to hound my husband to do this, some days. I would find him lying on the couch almost frantic from stress, trying to figure out what he was going to do for work. I told him repeatedly that he was unlikely to find the answers, in that state of mind.

    And back to Dr. Simon’s idea that the angry/depressive, or anger turned inward theory being controversial. Anger and depression feel much different. Depression and sadness are linked and seem to be the polar opposite of anger, rage.

    Depressives are in a deflated state, like someone let the air out of their tires. If it was anger turned inward, it seems to me that there would be more apparent internal pressure, it would look more like tires about to pop or suppressed anger.

    I told a therapist a few years ago that I was anxious. She told me I was really just depressed. We ended up arguing about what my emotional state was! Anxiety often accompanies depression, but in my mind, isn’t the same emotion or a reworking of depression. Anxiety is anxiety.

    1. LisaO
      Re the anxiety/depression link, my counselor thought I was depressed as well, of which I didn’t feel that I was, but felt anxious and having anxiety because my life/future are uncertain pending divorce. I don’t see a similarity or link in the least bit
      Good thing your husband had your support. I cannot imagine the stress he was enduring

  6. Last weekend my daughter and her toddler son moved out of – what I refer to – as Hell House, the marital home. She’d been living there with the CD husband (STBX) for the past year and a half. The house is scheduled to be sold at auction, but that is a whole nuther beast to deal with.
    Just as warned, SB has unleashed with anger towards her. He was texting, and then when she blocked him, he got through to her on Messaging on FaceBook. He called her awful names, insults, said things no father should ever even think of his own daughter. He lost control. She left. He gives her no financial support whatsoever, does not pay her phone bill, insurance, car, nothing. (I do). So she has no dependency from him now that she’s gone. He has no hold on her. And it infuriates him when she stands up for herself and blocks him. He kept texting over and over saying “answer your phone you bitch”. He demands to see his grandson, and she gave in and let him have him last night.
    He’s lost control over me and now is losing it over her. She has a lot to learn about abuse, control, no contact, etc. Poor girl. She’s on antidepressants. I told her she should start feeling better now that she is no longer living under his roof with all his anger and negativity.
    That old SB is a worthless human being, creating havoc and hate in people’s lives.

    1. Lucy,

      SB treats his own daughter abusively, how is it your daughter doesn’t see this is how SB will treat the little one. These are children’s formative years and has already been under a great deal of stress even though he can’t express it in words. Didn’t you say the baby doesn’t want to go home with his mother when she comes to pick him up from you?

      If your daughter has to leave there has to be others she can get to babysit. She will be drawn in and the abuse cycle will continue through her and the baby. She could get a restraining order, she needs to document these things and protective services would can be contacted. This would keep SB away from her and the child. Authorities could throw SB in jail real fast. Its sad but the only way for your daughter to break her dependency is by going NC.

      If your daughter doesn’t learn different behavioral choices she is game for another CD abuser to step into her life. The cycle needs to be broken and I would encourage you to talk to her about going to support groups at the Woman’s Resource Center. All the woman will support her and validate what is going is abuse.

      It takes strength of character to humble oneself to go to the shelter, I can guarantee if your daughter actively pursues help it will make her strong. I know with your support and strength she can do, only if she wants it though. I am proud of the progress you have made, your a real trooper. Your a great woman of strength.

      Know your loved ones are in my thoughts and prayers.

      1. That’s all good advice. She was going to counseling, just a few sessions, and decided she knew more than the counselor. So she quit going way too soon.
        Yes there was a time grandbaby didn’t want to go back with her. He wanted to stay with me. I think he’ll get more peace now they’ve got their own place. And my hope is SB doesn’t get him much. She has a long way to go. She can’t stand up to him. Still wants to “get along”. It’s fruitless. She knows he’s abusive. She does not understand it.
        Grandson is with me a lot and the other grandma a lot. SB time will be limited. I don’t think he’d act out on grandbaby. He’s actually been gentle with him, holding him for hours when he was an infant.
        I wish I could fix things but I can’t. It’s a f— up mess.
        I’m not getting the courts involved at this stage. She knows how to block him and will do it.
        If SB were not her father, she’d have dumped him long ago. There is that child/father connection, and even when it’s abusive and ugly they still want to hang on to their daddy. Wish it wasn’t so.
        I think once she finds peace in her own apartment she will see clearer. It will take some time.

        1. Lucy,
          I said this in all kindness, I am like you I write according to what I hear and from my heart.

          I believe you are the most positive person in your daughters life. It may take some time and hard knocks for her to find her way. Your grandson is lucky to have two good grandmothers, hopefully, your grandson has already picked your strength of character. courage and empathy……. “I think so.”


  7. OlRedHair,

    Pray like you have never prayed before.

    Pray for Peace, Pray for Wisdom, Pray for Miracle’s, Pray for Grace and Mercy.

    Treat your neighbor as you would want to be treated.
    Do unto others as you would have them do to you.
    Love your neighbor.
    Be kind, be merciful, be generous, treat others with dignity and respect.
    Go out to the poor and unfortunate and use your energy to help the needy.
    Volunteer at a food pantry.
    Be a Big Sister or Brother.
    Go to a nursing home and be kind to the elderly, for many have no one.
    Do the things that will uplift another.
    This is what I plan to do.

    Politicians can not define our character unless we let them.
    I would suggest you read Dr. Simon’ s Commandments of Character, it will open a whole knew door for you, I know it has for me. I am inspired by the kind caring posters on this blog and the words of wisdom given out so freely from their hearts, above all the love Dr. Simon shares with his fellowman.

    I hope you can find peace and hope in an unhappy world by offering peace, kindness and hope to another.

    God bless you and be well

  8. Depression is the result of PTSD.

    The problem is due to the mixed economy (corporate and social welfare for state profit, taxes, regulations).

    If society was in alignment with natural law people wouldn’t be struggling against a political economic system that is geared for cronyism and not for capitalism and or the free market.

    This is why people do not rebound from trauma, and why they remain stuck, acting in and or acting out violence.

    The pit of despair of depression is systemic i.e. due to State profit (taxes, regulations, that favor economic collectivists). It keeps people riveted in place and held down with little economic choice and or freedom of physical movement..and forget about people doing what they want to do…the regulations make it virtually impossible.

    The answer to this dilemma lies in Laissez-Faire Capitalism, natural law and Liberty.. If we take the State out of economics [e.g. with the university, mental health, big pharma, etc.] we can resolve these problems individually and as a society, once and for all.

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