According to an analysis of tweets about coronavirus, many of us have experienced an emotional shift from fear to anger. There are so many things to be mad about — governmental leadership (or lack thereof), economic disparity, police brutality, anti-maskers, just to name a few. The world is full of uncertainty and instability, which makes us anxious and depressed. Anger can be a way to regain control. With anger, we don’t feel weak, we feel powerful. It’s addictive and intoxicating but it can lead to some pretty serious problems for ourselves and others.
Living in a prolonged state of anger puts us at a higher risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke. It also causes muscle tension that can lead to migraines, insomnia, or chronic pain. If our anger alienates us from family members and friends, we can suffer from a lack of social support, which causes even more issues over time. In mild cases, an angry person ruminating on negativity is not pleasant to be around and at worst, an angry person displacing their rage onto others is dangerous. It’s clear that anger is an emotion that needs to be managed before it gets out of control.
Managing an emotion is different, however, from suppressing emotions. We don’t want to deny that we’re angry or dismiss it as invalid (e.g. “I shouldn’t feel this way). Instead, therapists largely recommend lowering your arousal state, processing the emotion in a healthy way and gaining insight into your triggers. The goal isn’t to stop the feeling from ever happening — that’s not very realistic. We’re humans and we feel a wide range of emotions as we navigate life. What we want to work towards is understanding and regulating anger so that it doesn’t hijack our life.
Pay Attention to Your Body
Anger is an emotion that usually comes with strong physiological signs. Some of the common reactions are increased breathing rate, unconscious tensing of muscles (especially neck and jaw), sweating, shaky hands, face turning red or pale, and goosebumps. Like any pressure, the build up of anger needs a release and that can end up directed at someone else or turned inwards against yourself. To avoid causing harm, there are strategies you can use to alleviate these reactions in a healthy way.
The acronym “TIPP” is an easy way to remember four methods of distress tolerance. This is a skill set for emotional regulation that is used in the Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) approach. It stands for:
- Intense exercise
- Paced breathing
- Paired muscle relaxation
Essentially you want to cool down your body with a splash of cold water, do jumping jacks, breath slowly, and relax individual muscle groups. By attending to your body in this way, you’ll likely find that your emotional intensity will begin to decrease.
Process the Emotion
When you’re in a lower arousal state, you have the ability to process the emotion in a healthy way. Unhealthy ways of dealing with anger include yelling at someone, kicking the wall, or quietly stewing in negative thoughts. Furthermore, numbing anger with alcohol, watching TV, or endless scrolling on social media is also unhealthy. The emotion is important and it deserves some uninterrupted moments of reflection.
Self-reflection doesn’t have to take too much time. Set a timer for five minutes and sit with the feeling. Alternatively, you might prefer to write out your feelings and have a dialogue with yourself. If possible, try to separate yourself from the feeling. You are not your anger, you are a person who is feeling anger in this moment. Don’t judge yourself for feeling angry. It’s just here, it’s part of life.
Anger can also be powerful as an emotion that spurs us to action. What positive actions could be inspired by this anger? Maybe the answer is having a calm and direct conversation with someone who has upset you, or maybe it’s getting involved with activism. There’s so much fuel created by anger — it’s possible that instead of becoming a runaway train, you can use this energy to direct the train up a steep and difficult hill — using it for the power of good and to your advantage.
Get to Know Your Triggers
Triggers are incredibly important in our quest to understand our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Something caused this anger and that “something” might not be obvious. For example, if your physical symptoms begin to escalate when you see someone not wearing a mask, the trigger is not simply, “people not wearing masks.” It’s probably deeper than that.
Many emotional theorists believe that anger is a secondary emotion. This means that there’s another emotion, or set of emotions, lurking behind it. You might feel scared of getting coronavirus, or someone close to you getting it, and the sight of a person without a mask causes fear before anger takes over. Connecting to fear allows us to nurture that emotion rather than distract with rage.
Our early childhood experiences can also impact our triggers. If we felt helpless and controlled in the past, it’s difficult to feel those emotions again because of lockdown restrictions. That’s when we can take a step back and think, “Okay, this is about something bigger.”
Working through unresolved trauma with your online therapist can help ease the intensity of present-day triggers. Ultimately we all have complex reasons for feeling the way that we do, but gaining awareness and skills for coping will keep us both mentally and physically fit.