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It’s Normal to Feel Angry Right Now—Here’s What You Can Do About It

Blowing off steam isn’t as easy during lockdown. Find out how to manage your anger and keep the peace.

Updated on April 29, 2020 at 1:30pm EST.

Everyone is on edge right now. Even if you were the most laid-back person in the world last February, after a few months of sheltering in place you may have found yourself exploding at your kids, your partner, your coffeemaker—or that random person who accidentally came within six feet of you on your last supermarket run.

You may be angry about the government’s response to the pandemic, cancelled vacations and lost work opportunities. At this point, you may be infuriated by people on the street who are not wearing face masks.

This is a perfectly normal reaction to the very abnormal circumstances we find ourselves in during the COVID-19 crisis, says Bethany Teachman, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

“It’s inevitable that rising irritability is going to accompany the rise in stress that people are experiencing right now,” she says. “It’s an incredibly challenging time with lots of uncertainty, and for many people those challenges are depleting their emotional resources. They're not sleeping well, they're stressed about work, their finances, their families and their health. All of this makes it easier for people to tip over into anger.”

Old coping strategies may not apply
In non-pandemic times, you might deal with negative emotions by going for a run, taking a boxing class or laughing at a comedy at the multiplex. But with families cooped up together 24/7, anger about the state of the world can sometimes become displaced as anger at your child for playing her music too loudly or anger at your spouse for leaving wet towels on the bathroom floor.

There have, in fact, been reports that the rate of domestic violence has increased worldwide since the beginning of the crisis. (If you’re experiencing violence in the home, contact the confidential National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE immediately.)

How to keep calm through the storm
If you are concerned about your own growing feelings of anger during the crisis, there are two sets of strategies for dealing with it, Teachman says. “There are preventive things you can do to keep yourself from being overwhelmed by anger so often,” she explains. “But if you do become angry, there are also strategies for how to manage that situation more effectively.” These strategies include:

Stick to a regular routine. With kids doing virtual school and adults either working from home, working stressful hours at essential jobs or not working at all, daily schedules can get out of whack. This can put a strain on you both mentally and physically, says Teachman.

Prioritizing sleep is essential, too. Research shows that losing even a couple hours sleep can lead to increased feelings of anger.

“It’s important to eat regular meals, get a full night’s sleep, and find time to exercise,” Teachman says.

Practice mindfulness. Setting aside a few minutes each day to practice mindfulness or meditation can also help dial down your reactions when things get heated up. One November 2017 study published in Mindfulness showed that people who practiced mindfulness daily for three weeks substantially lowered their aggressive reactions to other people. Watching relaxing videos from Sharecare Windows could help you manage stress and find ways to restore during this pandemic.

Limit news coverage. When you’re stuck at home watching a barrage of upsetting news, it can contribute to tension or anxiety. “We're getting nonstop breaking headlines, which gives a sense of constant urgency,” Teachman says.

Of course, you shouldn’t stay in the dark about what’s going on in the world, but it’s a healthy move to select a couple of times a day to watch. Teachman suggests you choose a half hour in the morning, and then a half hour before or after dinner to watch a trusted news channel (skip any “theories” going around the internet), rather than having the TV on as constant background noise. Most importantly, shut off all news at least an hour before you go to bed, so as not to disturb your sleep.

Give yourself space. Finding “me time” and “personal space” takes some creativity when you’re sheltering in place, but it’s crucial to decompress to help prevent your anger from building, says Teachman. She suggests scheduling daily times for each member of the family to retreat to a private space or simply having “quiet hours” when no conversation is required. If you don’t have any extra rooms at home, create a virtual cocoon by listening to music or a podcast on headphones.

Put some fun plans on the calendar. If you’re only communicating with your family about chores and schedules, everyone is going to get annoyed with everyone else. To keep each day from blending into the next, plan a few fun activities for the next couple of weeks. Think Scrabble night, popcorn and a favorite movie, a Zoom call with your favorite cousins.

“If you plan positive interactions with the people you’re quarantining with, you build up good will and understanding,” Teachman points out. “That makes it easier for everyone to let it go next time someone makes a comment the others don’t like.”

What to do when you start to lose it
Even with putting all the above strategies into place, you may still have moments when your blood starts boiling. Here’s what to do when you feel the anger building:

Recognize the signs. When your brain is triggered to anger, your body responds with physical reactions: Your heart starts racing, your palms sweat, your muscles tense or you find yourself breathing a little heavier. “Pay attention to what your physical reactions are and use these as a sign that you need to take a break from the situation, whether that means going outside for fresh air or retreating to your headphones,” she says.

Don’t react in the moment. Scheduling appointments to work out difficult situations is more productive—and less explosive—than reacting in the moment, Teachman advises. “If you're upset with your teenager about all the noise he’s making playing videogames while you're trying to work, tell him, ‘I'd like to think about how we're going to manage this situation. Let’s sit down after dinner tonight and work out how we can deal with it.’” That way, says Teachman, you can both have some time to cool down and prepare for the conversation in a positive way, rather than overreacting in the moment when you’re most upset.

Adjust your perspective. One method that can stop your anger in its tracks is to take a moment to see the situation from the other person’s point of view, Teachman says. For example, if you’re angry that someone cut ahead of you in line at the pharmacy, consider this: Perhaps they were distracted by a sick child at home and didn’t realize that you were already waiting to pay. Whether or not your scenario is true, it gives your brain another angle on the situation and may help you manage your feelings more effectively.

Finally, if you’ve tried all these methods, and you’re still worried that you can’t control your anger, seek outside help. Many therapists and clinics offer virtual appointments and other telehealth services—programs which have become even more important during the quarantine, Teachman says. You can also find listings for doctors in your area through Sharecare’s search tool or call your insurance company for referrals. Listings can also be found through the National Alliance on Mental Illness or the American Psychological Association’s psychologist locator.

There are also many options for online cognitive behavioral therapy, which has been shown in many studies to be an effective and affordable alternative to in-person therapy.

Medically reviewed in April 2020.

Sources:
D DeSteno, D Lim, F Duong, et al. “Meditation Inhibits Aggressive Responses to Provocations.” Mindfulness 9, 1117–1122 (2018).
United Nations. “The Shadow Pandemic: Violence Against Women and Girls and COVID-19.”
United Nations. “Amid Global Surge in Domestic Violence, Secretary-General Urges Governments to Make Prevention, Redress Part of National COVID-19 Response Plans.”
National Domestic Violence Hotline. “Get Help Today.”
Z Saghir, JN Syeda, AS Muhammad, TH Balla Abdalla. “The Amygdala, Sleep Debt, Sleep Deprivation, and the Emotion of Anger: A Possible Connection?” Cureus. 2018;10(7):e2912.
Z Krizan, G Hisler. “Sleepy anger: Restricted sleep amplifies angry feelings.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 2019,148(7), 1239–1250.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Are there any online resources for therapy/support groups or mental health apps?”
M Langarizadeh, MS Tabatabaei, K Tavakol, M Naghipour, A Rostami, F Moghbeli. “Telemental Health Care, an Effective Alternative to Conventional Mental Care: a Systematic Review.” Acta Informatica Medica. 2017;25(4):240–246.

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