It’s been over six weeks since the U.S. declared coronavirus a national emergency and anti-lockdown rallies are highlighting the rising tension. The recent protests in Michigan, Washington, and Colorado, among other states, have expressed frustration with physical distancing and restrictions on business, which is alarming — and often deeply upsetting — for Americans who agree with health officials on the necessity of those guidelines.
Politics aside, it’s become clear that anger and hostility have a negative impact on mental health. This emotional state allows us to justify our aggression towards others, often increases violent interactions, and spreads negativity. Ultimately, no matter how right you think you are, the feelings of rage and distress won’t help the situation. It just makes things worse.
To deal with the burgeoning disbelief and cynicism around the coronavirus outbreak, we need to build bridges not walls. It’s our ability to understand each other, connect with empathy, and find inner calm that will help us emerge from this crisis strengthened. While we may experience anger, we should aim to find common ground, and develop the right tools to keep ourselves and our communities safe.
Remember: Anger is a Response to Trauma
Before you dismiss someone’s anger as a sign of ignorance, it’s worth considering that anger is largely considered to be a “secondary emotion.” It’s a tough mask for more vulnerable feelings like fear, shame, guilt, and other emotional pain. This is more likely to happen with people who have experienced past traumas, face current difficulties due to socio-economic status, or have a biological profile that translates stress into anger. It’s also important to realize that some people are subject to multiple risk factors, leading to higher levels of anger.
If you’re experiencing anger, it will help to connect with the underlying feelings that spark it. You might be alienating others with aggressive words and actions, causing them to dismiss your emotions as illogical outbursts. In fact, you might be dismissing your own emotions by using anger as a distraction. To get to the root of your distress, try listing out the reasons you’re angry using “I” statements (e.g. “I feel angry because….”). You might be surprised to discover that you’re really feeling something closer to sadness or fear.
Connecting with a therapist can also help you unpack the suitcase of anger to see what’s inside. As you work on resolving your vulnerable emotions, you may find it easier to get the support you need and our anger, which is no longer useful, subsides.
Find Common Ground
We are all going through a collective trauma, but that doesn’t mean our experiences are the same. You might think it’s crazy that someone is protesting, but they might think it’s crazy that you’re not protesting. In reality, the two sides have more in common than they realize. What if, instead of stonewalling each other with crossed arms, we express the fear and grief that fuels anger.
The person who is cynical about lockdown restrictions might say, “I’m fearful about my ability to financially support my family and I don’t trust the health officials because I haven’t had positive experiences with authority figures in my life.” The person who is mad that lockdown restrictions aren’t being respected might say, “I’m fearful for my life and those with compromised immune systems. I trust the health officials because I believe they’re giving us the best information that will keep us safe.”
It’s easier to understand that we’re all afraid, but perhaps of different things and showing our fear in different ways. If we have people in our lives with an opposing opinion, it might be helpful to limit argumentative responses and instead validate their emotions. Even with state restrictions, there’s only so much we can do, or perhaps want to do, to control the thoughts and actions of others. However, research shows that creating an environment of empathy and support can naturally lead to greater understanding. As the old saying goes, “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
Use Tools for Empathy and Acceptance
When we’re finding it difficult to deal with others, the first step is to look inwards. When we have empathy for ourselves, we can more easily find it for others. Explore your own feelings of fear, sadness, guilt, and shame. Where do they come from? What do you need in order to lower your level of distress? Meditation and other forms of emotional self-care, including therapy, can help with this process. To make a happier world, we need to start with ourselves.
Then, we can look for ways to decrease the anger in others. What do they need? What can we do to help support them? By translating the energy of anger into helpfulness, we can affect greater change. For example, your volunteering or fundraising effort can help lower stress in your community and someone, somewhere out there, might feel less angry. We don’t need to accept injustice, but transforming it into activism and philanthropy are healthier expressions — both for ourselves and for society.
The good news is that there’s a lot of power in anger, and we can do great things when that power becomes productive.