Does Anger Define Americans Today?
It is hard not to notice that Americans are operating on their last nerve. Tempers are short, rudeness prevails, and anger is rampant. There is little that has brightened our moods over the past few years. Recent surveys indicate that anger had risen in the country even before the 2020 crisis. A Gallup poll conducted in 2018 concluded that Americans’ stress, worry, and anger had intensified that year. The emergency weekly surveys conducted last year, by the Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t specifically ask about anger. But they did reveal that Americans are anxious or depressed. Both anxiety and depression can manifest as anger.
Laura Tiedens a social psychologist, and president of Scripps College in California, said that anger is also an understandable reaction to the uncertainty inherent in the pandemic and protests. “We know that uncertainty as both a cognitive and emotional state is one that people want to resolve,” she said. Anger is one way to do that. “By being angry about something,” she said, “you get to leave your feelings of uncertainty for a while and occupy a space and a sensibility of certainty, clarity, and confidence.”
The Anger Incubator
Americans are acting out – being pushed to their limits. They are feuding about politics, protests, the pandemic. Fights about whether or not to wear a mask, or get the vaccine are playing out both publicly and on social media. On September 21st, a woman pulled a gun on servers at a Philadelphia fast-food restaurant when they asked her to order online. On September 16th, several women from Texas pummeled a hostess at a New York City family-style restaurant. A few days earlier prior to that, a Connecticut mother was investigated for slapping an elementary school bus driver, and the same week, a California woman was charged with felony assault for attacking a Southwest Airlines flight attendant and dislodging some of her teeth.
A crisis, such as the pandemic, that causes the type of festering tension that seems to drive these public outbursts has been described by some mental health experts as an ‘anger incubator’. When restrictions were lifted and people were allowed to go to restaurants, basketball games, and resume flying, it was believed that people would be happy. Some psychologists are of the thought that the long period of isolation has left social interactions more charged. The combination of a deadly pandemic that is highly contagious causing life-altering changes in the rules of human interaction have left people anxious, confused, and especially if they do not believe the restrictions were necessary, deeply resentful.
Our Fight or Flight Instincts Have Been Triggered
Our brain is always on alert to threats to our wellbeing. The tsunami of events throughout this pandemic has raised our alert level and put us in a chronic stress cycle. We have become reactionary to everything new that is presented to us. Bernard Golden, a psychologist and author of Overcoming Destructive Anger says that “We are going through a time where psychologically people’s threat system is at a heightened level. This period of threat has been so long that it may have damaging effects on people’s mental health which for many has been further debilitated by isolation, loss of resources, death of loved ones and reduced social support.”
Can this level of rage ever be broken? Peggy Smith, an expert in nonviolent communication believes that this is a transformational moment. “It is not about anger – it’s about fear,” she said. “We have been taught to be afraid of being vulnerable. But our actual strength is being able to own and express our own vulnerability” she said. “When they are angry, people can’t access the rational part of their brain.” Bernard Golden, a psychologist and the author of Overcoming Destructive Anger, states, “Half the people fear COVID, and half the people fear being controlled.”
Strategies to Curb Your Anger
· Insulate yourself from anger: Appreciation, Affiliation, Aspiration
- Appreciation means paying attention not to what angers you but to things that contribute to positivity in your life.
- Affiliation means nurturing our relationships
- Aspiration means striving to accomplish things that are bigger than yourself or that serve other people
· Limit media exposure
- We need to be aware of what we are feeding our minds.
- There is so much stimulation and so much information
- Studies suggest that there is a link between viewing television after natural disasters or terrorist events and post-traumatic stress symptoms
· Stop and think
- Americans’ threat perception may be off-kilter at this moment in time, given the virus and the unrest in the country.
- We need to remind ourselves that we have a problem here that needs to be solved, not a threat that calls for an attack
- “Look at things from a third-person perspective rather than being immersed in the situation” Brad Bushman, a professor in Ohio State University’s School of Communication, aggression, and violence researcher
· Deal with the heightened energy
- Addressing our anger involves both psychological and cognitive components
- Physiologically reduce the arousal state to get rid of anger
- Take deep breaths or listen to calming music or count to 10
- What you shouldn’t do is vent: “When you hit, kick, swear, scream, shout, punch a pillow, punch a punching bag – because you are keeping the arousal level high” Brad Bushman
· Distract yourself
- Address the cognitive aspect of anger
- Angry people tend to ruminate about what made them angry
- Try doing something that is ‘incompatible with anger and aggression
- Helping someone has the added benefit of giving you a sense of control
· Consider your children
- Remember, your children are watching how you are dealing with anger
- Kids are going to feel emotions as well and must learn how to deal with it
- “If we are feeling really angry, showing our children and helping explain to them why we are doing what we are doing can be an amazing opportunity to model something.” Psychiatrist Joshua Morganstein
The complexities of COVID recovery have unleashed a surge in anxiety, depression, fear, and anger. Instead of reacting (which a chronic stress brain does), we must continually take a step back and think. We must help our brain function in a more positive manner. We Can and we Must do this.
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