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Have you noticed increased frustration, agitation or anger throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic? If so, you're not alone. Research has shown that many people are experiencing anger, and that. pandemic anger, or "panger," is real.
Anger is a universal human emotion. In its most basic form, anger's purpose is to motivate action. That's really important. But many of the things done in response to anger, such as yelling, dwelling on the situation or shutting down, can be less than helpful. And these actions can negatively affect physical and mental health, and relationships. Over time, anger becomes exhausting.
So what can you do?
Here are some ideas that may help you respond more effectively to panger rather than simply reacting:
Step back and observe.
Take a deep breath and pay attention to what's happening in the moment without judging or evaluating your experience.
Often, anger feels too overwhelming. If you can step back, you may notice that the anger you're experiencing has many parts. Everyone experiences anger in their own way.
Reflect on what your anger typically looks like:
Thoughts and emotions are closely related. What thoughts indicate you're becoming angry? They may sound something like this: "This isn't fair" or "How dare they," or "I'm so tired of this." Try to observe your thoughts coming and going like clouds in the sky rather than thinking of them as absolute truths to be acted on immediately.
A variety of other emotions can come with anger. For example, you may feel hurt, fear, embarrassment or frustration before you notice the anger. Be specific in labeling your emotions.
- Physical sensations
Do you notice anger in your body, such as tightening of the chest, clenching of the jaw or fists, or feeling hot?
- Urge to act
You may notice an action urge or impulse. This might be the urge to scream or run away.
Try imagining what your panger might look like in physical form. Would it be big or small? What color would it be? What shape? Where would it be located in your body? Would it make noise? Would it be loud or soft? Imagining a physical "anger monster" may help you think about your anger rather than being caught up in it.
Simply slowing down and observing anger can make it seem less overwhelming and help create space between your anger and what you do next.
Allow panger to be present.
People often try to avoid or get rid of unpleasant internal experiences, including thoughts, emotions and memories. This is natural and even makes a lot of sense in the short term, but it doesn't always work well in the long term. With anger, the tendency to avoid can result in various automatic reactions that aren't always helpful and can even increase anger over time.
For example, lashing out at someone may make you feel better in the moment. But it doesn't often help in the long term and may even make you feel worse, such as feeling guilty for yelling at your children or a co-worker. Shutting down and suppressing anger or frustration often increases its intensity over time ― what you might think of as "the beach ball effect." That is the more you push the beach ball down under water, the more powerful it is when it shoots upward.
Listen to anger's message about what you value.
Choosing to allow anger — along with associated thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and urges — to be present without automatically trying to avoid or get rid of it creates freedom and flexibility to choose effective and meaningful actions. Accepting anger is an active choice, not a passive resignation. It doesn't mean you're accepting the situation that may have led to anger or that you're giving up on what you care about. It means you're choosing to put energy toward effective action rather than focusing solely on trying to control the uncontrollable.
If you listen closely, painful emotions, like anger, often connect with a message about something or someone you really care about or value. If you didn't care, it wouldn't hurt. Most humans are hurting during this global pandemic, so panger makes sense.
Choose effective action.
Once you've slowed down to listen to the message anger is sending you, choose your next effective action. You may not be able to control what others say and do, or even what you think and feel, but you can control how you respond.
- Anger about pandemic-related travel and social distancing restrictions might carry the message that you really care about your family and friends. You miss spending time with them. You may choose to explore new, creative and safer ways to connect with loved ones, such as walking together outside or scheduling a Zoom game night.
- Anger about racial health care disparities related to COVID-19 may point to how much you value equitable policies and practices. Anger can help motivate you to take part in values-based actions, which could range from getting involved in advocacy efforts to giving yourself time to rest and recharge.
- Frustration, stress, exhaustion or burnout at work may be associated with the importance of self-care. This message may cue you to make time ― no matter how small ― to take part in restful, grounding or enjoyable activities.
- Agitation toward those who may not agree with your views on the importance of public health measures, such as COVID-19 vaccinations, may indicate that you value the health and wellness of the global community. This may lead you to focus on public health education efforts and modeling the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendations.
Everyone has unique and individually chosen values, and the actions that align with these values may look different across people and situations. It's all about exploring the message that anger may have for you and choosing actions based on what you care about most.
If you feel like anger or other strong emotions are significantly and negatively affecting you, consider seeking out mental health services from a professional who uses evidence-based treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or acceptance and commitment therapy.
Here are helpful resources if you need help managing your panger:
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Anger Management for Substance Use Disorder Mental Health Clients Workbook
- Anxiety & Depression Association of America
- Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies
Anne Roche, Ph.D., and Sydney Kelpin, Ph.D., are clinical psychology fellows, and Craig Sawchuk, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson's Division of Integrated Behavioral Health at Mayo Clinic.