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Tame the rage

Soothing pandemic provoked anger

Funny thing about anger. Usually we humans have something or someone to direct our anger toward. But what about if you are just feeling anger for no apparent reason? You are just in an agitated state, irritable and just plain mad at everything and everyone? Even the dog and weather are not immune from your agitation and irritability. You know you are far from pleasant to be around, but really are having difficulty shaking the feeling of pissed-off-ness. What gives?

The illusion of control

We humans like to have control over something. Anything. COVID feels out of control, because we are waiting. Waiting for … the pandemic to be over; the economy to return to its previous bullish state; for our spring and summer travel and vacation plans to resume. The list goes on and on.  

Generally speaking, we tend to think of our bodies and minds as separate systems and believe they function, for the most part, independently. Yet instinctively we know that is not the whole story. For instance, can you remember the last time you had an important meeting or presentation? Or went on a first date with someone you were really trying to impress? In either case, you wanted to appear calm and collected but at the same time you were feeling self-conscious and nervous. Can you recall how your body felt?

The difference between these examples and here and now is these activities you had control over. The circumstance now you do not. It is little wonder that people are getting out, despite the urgency to stay home and flatten the curve. I have heard people lament that these people who are defying the orders to stay home are “selfish.” Although I do not agree with the idea that we should go against the precautions I do believe that the human state to try and control just one thing—like driving around or going to get fast food- are merely human approaches to gain some sense of “normalcy” and “control” against a contagion we cannot see and we will not know if we have for 10-14 days post exposure. Again, there is little we have direct control over—thus we try to control our purchase of paper products and sanitizer, furiously wash our hands at every turn and seek out N95 masks in some attempt to feel in control over our circumstances.

But back to the question of anger, and feeling anger for no apparent reason. How do you get a handle on something or someone you cannot directly pinpoint as the ‘cause’ of your anger?

What are you reallyangry at?

In my own clinical experience, anger is almost never a primary emotion in that even when anger seems like an instantaneous, knee-jerk reaction to provocation, there’s always some other feeling that gave rise to it. And this particular feeling is precisely what the anger has contrived to camouflage or control.

It seems silly at first blush to “blame the COVID-19 virus” for feelings of anger and agitation.  Although this might feel ridiculous, when I ask my clients what they really think of when considering COVID-19 and what it potentially involves– namely, the very threat of severe illness or death–they realize their emotion must certainly have been one of apprehension or fear. In effect, whether individuals are confronted with physical or psychological pain (or even the threat of such pain), the internal activation of the anger response will precipitate the release of a neurochemical expressly designed to numb it. One author astutely stated: “If Anger Helps You Feel in Control, No Wonder You Can’t Control Your Anger!”[1]

If anger can help us self-medicate against all sorts of pain, it is equally effective in helping ward off feelings of powerlessness. Not only does our brain secrete the analgesic-like neurotransmitter (norepinephrine) when we’re provoked, but it also produces epinephrine, an amphetamine-like hormone that leads to a surge of energy. This is the surge of adrenaline that may be felt during anger.

A situation, like COVID-19, can make us feel defeated or powerless. Transforming these helpless feelings into anger can instantly provide a heightened sense of control. In a way this sense of control can be as powerful and numbing as alcohol or cocaine. Contrary to feeling weak or out of control, the experience of anger can foster a sense of invulnerability.

So, now what?

Wherever the feelings come from, you don’t have to let anger be the primary emotion and get the better of you. Consider these strategies to manage your emotions or keep anger at bay.

Problem Solving.

 Sometimes, our anger and frustration are caused by very real and inescapable problems in our lives. Not all anger is misplaced, and often it’s a healthy, natural response to these difficulties. There is also a cultural belief that every problem has a solution, and it adds to our frustration to find out that this isn’t always the case. The best attitude to bring to such a situation, then, is not to focus on finding the solution, but rather on how you handle and face the problem.

Improve your communication skills. 

Angry people tend to jump to—and act on—conclusions and some of those conclusions can be very inaccurate. Don’t say the first thing that comes into your head, but slow down and think carefully about what you want to say. At the same time, listen carefully to what the other person is saying and take your time before answering. Keeping your cool can keep a situation from becoming disastrous.

Another approach is to use humor to diffuse a situation. There are two cautions in using humor. First, don’t try to just “laugh off” your problems; rather, use humor to help yourself face them more constructively. Second, don’t give in to harsh, sarcastic humor; that’s just another form of unhealthy anger expression.

Lastly, express your feelings in appropriate ways. If stress or anxiety is causing physical symptoms internalizing these feelings can lead to you feeling worse. It’s okay to let people know when something is bothering you– but keep in mind that family and well-meaning associates may not always be able to help you deal (or may be having the same difficulties!). At these times, ask someone outside the situation for help.

Recognize (and avoid) angry trigger points.

Give some thought to the things that make you mad. If you always argue with your spouse at night, avoid bringing up contentious topics when you’re both tired. If you’re constantly annoyed that your child hasn’t cleaned his room, shut the door so you don’t have to look at the mess.

Check yourself. 

It’s hard to make smart choices when you’re in the grips of a powerful negative emotion. Rather than trying to talk yourself down from a cliff, avoid climbing it in the first place. Try to identify warning signs that you’re starting to get annoyed. When you recognize the signs, step away from the situation to prevent your irritation from

Don’t dwell. 

Some people have a tendency to keep hashing fears, particularly those without resolution or method to alleviate uncertainty. That’s an unproductive strategy. Focus instead on things you can control rather than the angry emotion.

Change the way you think. 

When you’re angry, it’s easy to feel like things are worse than they really are. Logic defeats anger, because anger, even when it’s justified, can quickly become irrational. So use cold hard logic on yourself. Remind yourself that this too will pass—and ask yourself, will what you are angry at going to matter in a week, month, or year from now?  

When angry, thinking can get very exaggerated and overly dramatic. You can change your thinking and replace unhelpful negative thoughts with more rational and reasonable ones.  Also, reminding yourself that getting angry is not going to fix anything. Anger really won’t make you feel better and many times will make you feel worse.

Get active.

Regular physical exercise can help you decompress, burn off extra tension and reduce stress that can fuel angry outbursts.

Relax. 

Although it is so passé to say “just relax” learning how to manage our physiology can help quell our anger. Obviously if you had mastered these and similar techniques I doubt you would be reading this article!  Regardless, simple relaxation strategies, such as deep breathing and relaxing imagery, can help decrease anger.  If you practice one or more of these strategies often, it will be easier to apply them when angry feelings present.

  • Focused breathing. Shallow breathing is angry breathing. Practice taking controlled, slow breaths that you picture coming up from your belly rather than your chest.
  • Imagery. Visualize a relaxing experience from your memory or your imagination.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation. With this technique, you slowly tense then relax each muscle group one at a time. For example, you might start with your toes and slowly work your way up to your head and neck.

You can’t completely eliminate anger and angry feelings. But you can make changes to the way those events affect you, and the ways in which you respond. By making the effort to keep your anger in check, you and the people close to you will be happier for the long run.


[1] Leon F Seltzer Ph.D. Evolution of the Self. ANGER, What Your Anger May Be Hiding.  Reflections on the most seductive—and addictive—of human emotions. Posted Jul 11, 2008: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/200807/what-your-anger-may-be-hiding

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