Anger In the Time of Pandemic

Posted:  May 10, 2020

Anger In the Time of Pandemic

Joe Pereira, LICSW, CAS

It has already been stated in many different forums that we are living in unprecedented times with the COVID-19 pandemic.  In this period of crisis and misfortune, it is also obvious that individuals are experiencing difficult emotions and feelings in response to what has been occurring.   There are feelings of grief and sadness for a loved one who has been a victim of the virus.  There is fear about whether a person or someone they know will become sick with the virus and possibly die. There is anxiety about when the pandemic will be over and the long-term effects of the pandemic on a person’s well-being and also anxiety about what our society and communities will look like once the pandemic has passed and the possibility of another outbreak.  In addition, there are feelings of despondency and depression about all of the concerns noted above.

As a clinical social worker and therapist I have continued to provide therapy to clients through video sessions during this time of quarantine.   One of my areas of treatment focus is working with individuals who may have anger control problems.  As a result, I have been listening to how feelings of anger are playing out with people during this time regardless of whether they have problems with regulating their anger or are meeting with me to address other personal concerns.

While anger is considered one the 5 or 6 “universal” emotions, there is often a reluctance to acknowledge how anger may impact on our well-being.  As a member of Tufts Health Plan, I have been receiving periodic text messages about various aspects of COVID-19.  Recently, one of the texts that I received was addressing the importance of our mental health in dealing with the pandemic.  The text made reference to different feelings a person may be having at this time such as anxiety or sadness but did not include the feeling of anger which likely is an emotion that people are experiencing.

The more intense forms of anger are what often get people’s attention and make the news.  There is anger among people who believe that the quarantining has gone on long enough and are demanding governors allow businesses to open.  Several days ago, two employees at a McDonald’s in Oklahoma City were shot because a customer became angry that the dining area at the restaurant was closed to minimize the spread of COVID-19.   In Michigan, recently, a 68-year-old man was arrested after he allegedly wiped his nose and mouth on a Dollar Tree store clerk’s shirt when he was told to wear a mask.

As a way of better understanding the experience of anger, it is useful to see the emotion on a continuum.    In my discussion with clients, I use an anger thermometer to demonstrate that range. The “temperature” can range from 10- 100.  Lower temperatures are situations that can cause us to be irritated and annoyed while higher temperatures involve being incensed and enraged.  During this time of pandemic, it is likely fair to say that many of us are dealing with ongoing feelings of irritation and annoyance. A personal experience I had recently may illustrate this point.  I was shopping at my local Trader Joe’s.  Over the past week, they had changed the direction in which customers could walk in the store.  A sales associate explained that it was done to help with the “traffic flow” which made sense.  However, I found myself feeling some annoyance because there was a change which threw off my routine.

So it is helpful to consider what our “triggers” may be during this time of pandemic. Triggers can be other people or certain situations that can generate irritable reactions.   Since medical and health professionals are still learning about COVID-19- what we should or should not be doing is in flux.  For example, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) initially indicated that it was not necessary to wear masks but then weeks later changed that recommendation and now governors and mayors are requiring the use of masks.

While the change as to whether to wear a mask highlights the uncertainty of our current situation and cause anger, we now may become angry if we see someone who is not wearing a mask in a public area.  Clients have expressed their annoyance with joggers and bicycle riders who are not wearing a mask and potentially spreading the virus.     There is an expectation that people need to follow the guidelines and if they do not wear masks they may be thought of as selfish and inconsiderate and jeopardizing our safety.  These beliefs can cause a person to feel angry.

What can be useful during this time of pandemic is to certainly acknowledge our feelings of anger and not to avoid the feeling.  There is a saying, “what we resist persists”.  So if we can ignore the anger, it may build and eventually become overwhelming so then we could potentially engage in behavior that is harmful to ourselves and others.  It would also be beneficial to understand what other feelings we are experiencing along with the anger.  Are we feeling overwhelmed, helpless and/or anxious?  By identifying other feelings, we can often reduce the intensity of our anger and improve our ability to determine what we need to do for ourselves in the moment.

Another strategy is to pay attention to our self-care.  Are we sleeping adequately, eating healthy and engaging in some sort of regular exercise?  If we are not taking care of ourselves then our frustration tolerance is lower and we may find that we are more easily bothered when things do not go our way.

As we face the ongoing difficulties associated with the pandemic and its aftermath, it may be helpful to keep in mind another saying that “anger is tool for change when it challenges us to become more of an expert of the self and less of an expert on others.”

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About the Author

Joe Pereira, LICSW, CAS
I am a licensed clinical social worker and addictions specialist who has been practicing for over 30 years. I have provided therapy services in a number of different settings including correctional institutions, inpatient hospital units, community mental health centers, and employee assistance programs. I was a co-founder of Outlook Associates of New England in 1997 which was a practice started to assist persons with anger control problems. I am currently in private practice in Arlington, MA, and Boston, MA offering individual and group therapy in addition to training and consultation with a focus on anger management to adults and adolescents. I have given numerous trainings locally as well as nationally and internationally on the treatment of anger management problems as well as workplace safety, substance use disorders and stress management. I am also currently an adjunct instructor at the Boston University School of Social Work since 2013.