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Emotions are riding high as lockdown stretches on and our freedoms remain constrained. One emotion in particular has repeatedly reared its head in households up and down the UK this week. Anger.
There’s anger at the virus, government, media and, most recently, anger at the injustice when most people have followed the rules – often at a huge personal cost – and a minority haven’t, including some of those in positions of power.
When HuffPost UK asked the nation ‘How are you feeling?’ earlier this month, multiple people cited anger as a predominant emotion. One midwife who wished to remain anonymous told us she felt “tearful” and “angry at [the] government for their treatment of us in the NHS as dispensable”.
Another said: “I am really angry with how the government has handled this. They don’t know what they are doing and they don’t seem to care about how many people are dying. I am scared.”
Anger is a very natural emotion – we all experience it at one point or other. Catherine Gallacher, a counsellor and senior-accredited BACP member, tells HuffPost UK that it falls on a spectrum. “People talk about feeling frustrated, irritable,” she says. “They talk about feeling annoyed, angry and then it goes up to rage. The last [emotion on the spectrum] is indifference, where there’s a lack of care of consequences and that’s obviously very severe.”
Bubbling away beneath the anger that people feel, there are usually other emotions at play: fear, confusion, grief (“not necessarily loss as in bereavement, but loss of the norm,” explains Gallacher). Anger can also be driven by a loss of control, and a sense of injustice or unfairness.
“Anger was one of the primary evolutionary feelings: it was designed for survival. It knows only on and off,” explains David Woolfson, an anger management specialist and psychotherapist. “But this means that once the trigger is pressed, often by a trivial event, we end up in noise and miss out on the detail and complexity of our humanity. Our capacity for empathy is reduced and we want only to survive, hide, hurt, blame or punish.”
Holding onto or internalising anger can be harmful – it’s been linked to poor heart health (multiple studies have associated it with an increased risk of heart attacks), high blood pressure, anxiety and stress, which has been linked in turn to a weakened immune system.
Anger has physical and mental symptoms you may recognise – including a fast heartbeat, tense muscles, feeling hot and tight in your chest, as well as feeling nervous, unable to relax, irritable, humiliated or resentful of others. If you are experiencing any of these, here’s a way through.
Accept the feeling
You might find yourself lashing out at someone you love or bursting into tears (yes, angry tears are a thing) and wondering why. This is because, for lots of people, it’s hard to identify anger as the underlying reason for how you feel.
Take a minute to check in with yourself and determine how you’re feeling today – and what might be the source of these feelings. If you’re reading this, you might already suspect anger as an underlying factor and this is a positive start.
Gallacher recommends accepting this is how you feel, understanding that anger is a normal emotion given the circumstances, but also recognising it can be “unhelpful and unhealthy” to internalise it. Dwelling on negative feelings for too long can be damaging – studies have even linked it to depression.
It’s not about beating yourself up – which can actually make you even angrier. “Often, when we are angry, we tell ourselves we shouldn’t be; that feeling angry is somehow bad,” says Woolfson. “Then we get angry with ourselves for being angry and feel ashamed – it’s an inexorable cycle.” To break that cycle, ask: why are you experiencing anger? And, most importantly, what can you do with it?
Analyse your anger
Sometimes the tiniest of events can trigger significant anger. If this is the case, it can suggest your anger is not about what’s actually happening in the moment.
“Each of us carries a ‘sack’ of anger and history with us, and disproportionate anger tells us this has been triggered,” explains Woolfson.
“Generally, your colleague’s lateness, or the washing up not being done, are not really big deals, especially during lockdown, and won’t be important by tomorrow. It certainly doesn’t merit much anger.” If your anger is out of proportion, it’s likely your feelings aren’t related to the immediate present.
Get some fresh perspective
Anger is often triggered by perception rather than the truth, says Woolfson. He offers the example of when a colleague turns up late for a Zoom meeting and you are affronted because you read it as a sign they don’t respect you. But the reality might be that their internet was down or their kids were playing up.
“Ask yourself if your opinion is accurate or merely your version of the truth,” Woolfson suggests. Look at the situation from a fly on the wall perspective – evidence shows this technique, called self-distancing, can help reduce our feelings of anger. It’s a good technique to use in the heat of the moment, too.
Don’t make it all about you
Recognising when we make things personal can help reduce anger levels significantly, says Woolfson. “This is typical of road rage, when we make being cut up by another motorist a personal attack,” he adds.
“Often when we take things personally, we rub salt in a childhood wound or false story, often around beliefs of not being good enough, being imperfect, or a failure. These beliefs often persist into adulthood, creating stress and anger when we ‘fail’. This pattern is self-perpetuating.”
Find a calming strategy
The key to diffusing anger is to find strategies that calm yourself, says Gallacher. And no, high-octane exercise sessions like boxing probably won’t help – they might even make you feel even more riled up.
“You want to de-escalate, decompress, self-soothe and calm things down,” she says. There are plenty of alternative strategies, like mindfulness, yoga, pilates, walking, swimming, jogging, journalling, engaging in a hobby you enjoy and doing breathing exercises.
Gallacher recommends the 5,5,5 breathing technique, where you breathe in slowly through your nose for five seconds, hold your breath for five seconds, breathe out through your mouth slowly for five seconds, hold your breath for five seconds – and repeat this five times. It’s also known as the box breathing technique, and can be good for those with anxiety.
Ultimately, it’s about finding what works best for you.
Talk to others
For some people, just talking about their anger with others can help – whether that’s a housemate, family member or therapist – rather than bottling it up. Have a good vent, but don’t overdo it.
If you’re arguing a lot with your partner or a family member, communicate. “By letting others know how you feel and what you need you can strengthen bonds – especially in the current intense health crisis,” says Woolfson.
Steer clear of vices
It might be tempting to turn to drugs, cigarettes, booze or gambling to help ease your anger – but actually, these can all contribute to poor mental health and will likely make you feel even worse (and angrier) afterwards.
While anger can drive terrible deeds and behaviour, it can also be a force for good, says Woolfson. “We usually focus on the ‘bad’ behaviours that come with anger, such as losing your temper, bullying or being heavily critical or sarcastic. But anger itself is just a feeling, not a behaviour.”
Many people are surprised to learn that anger management is not about getting rid of anger but “changing our relationship with it”. The NHS advice is not to focus on things you cannot change (easier said than done), but Woolfson is more of the mindset that denying anger will not make it go away – rather, it creates shame, fear and even more anger.
“We can change our relationship with anger simply by treating it as a source of valuable information about ourselves and how we see the world,” he says.
Anger often goes hand in hand with much of the activism we see in society – fuelling climate change activist Greta Thunberg, Big Issue founder John Bird, and Gina Miller, the business owner who challenged the UK government in 2016 over its authority to trigger article 50 without parliamentary approval.
There are constructive things that can come of anger for you too – whether that’s calmly talking to a boss or colleague about something you’re upset about or writing a letter to your neighbour about their noisy parties. This past weekend, thousands wrote impassioned letters to their MPs expressing their unhappiness over Dominic Cummings’ movements during lockdown. As Gallacher puts it: “If you want to be heard, don’t be angry, be reasonable.”
Psychologists believe that moral outrage can have beneficial outcomes and inspire people to take part in long-term collective action. Daryl Cameron, assistant professor of psychology at Penn State University, said that moral outrage “can get you to care, can get you motivated to sign petitions, can get you to volunteer” – and ultimately these things can help shape a better society.
If you feel angry about something, allow yourself time to calm down and then focus on constructive action – we’re talking solutions here. Think carefully about how you move forward. “If you hold on to the anger, it turns inside you and becomes unhealthy for you” says Gallacher. “Look at a way of processing the anger – acknowledge it and the reason behind it, but also ask: what next?”