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A Healthier You

If You’re Often Angry Or Irritable, You May Be Depressed

02/05/2019

(NPR) – Registered nurse Ebony Monroe of Houston recently went through a period of being quick to anger about every little thing. She didn’t realize then what it might mean for her health.

“If you had told me in the beginning that my irritability was related to depression, I would probably be livid,” Monroe says with a laugh. “I did not think irritability aligned with depression.”

She’s not alone. Many people — including physicians — associate depression with feelings of hopelessness, sadness and a lack of motivation or concentration, but not anger. Some researchers say that’s a problem, given that there appears to be a strong link between irritability and depression.

If you pick up what is often called the “bible of psychiatry,” the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, you’ll find that the list of core symptoms for major depression doesn’t include anger.

“It’s not included at all in the adult classification of depression,” says Dr. Maurizio Fava, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School.

But he points out that irritability — a reduced control over one’s temper that results in angry outbursts — is listed as a core symptom of depression for children and adolescents. It has never made sense to him that it’s not included for adults. “Why would someone who happens to be irritable and angry when depressed as an adolescent suddenly stop being angry at age 18?” he asks.

Anger is an emotional and physical feeling that makes people want to warn, intimidate or attack a person who is perceived as threatening. Fava says a depressed adult with lots of anger is often assumed to have bipolar disorder or a personality disorder.

“We see in our clinics patients who are labeled as having other diagnoses because people think, ‘Well, you shouldn’t be so angry if you are depressed,’ ” says Fava. The diagnosis matters because it affects the kind of treatment people get.

Back when he was trained decades ago, Fava says, he was taught that in depression, anger is projected inward — that depressed people would be angry at themselves but not at others. That didn’t match what he was seeing in a lot of his patients with depression.

“I would say 1 in 3 patients would report to me that they would lose their temper, they would get angry, they would throw things or yell and scream or slam the door,” says Fava. Afterward, these people would be filled with remorse.

Fava thinks these “anger attacks” may be a phenomenon that is similar to panic attacks. His research found that this kind of anger subsided in the majority of patients treated with antidepressants.

Psychiatry has carefully studied how anxiety and depressed mood are experienced by patients, notes Fava, but anger has been relatively neglected. “I don’t think that we have really examined all the variables and all the levels of anger dysregulation that people experience,” he says.

That view is shared by Dr. Mark Zimmerman, a professor of psychiatry at Brown University. “The field has not sufficiently attended to problems with anger,” says Zimmerman.

“The most frequently used scales to evaluate whether or not medications work for treating depression don’t have any anger-specific items,” he notes.

Read the full story at npr.org


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