A brief guide to coping with anger in the context of COVID-19

Plenty of excellent resources have already been circulated for coping with COVID19 stress and anxiety; see my compiled list of recommended resources here, and check back often as I continue to add more. 

Not much has been said about coping with anger, though, which has arguably been running just as hot for many of us as panic and fear. 

Unlike fear, which signals a need to run and hide from a threat, anger motivates us to fight—for better or worse. For better, when it alerts us to real wrongs that our actions can help set right. For worse, when it is either 1) founded on a misjudgment (as our emotions often can be, especially in times of crisis) and/or 2) a defensive reaction against feeling scared, powerless, or some other more vulnerable emotion.  This latter can take some ugly forms, such as scapegoating entire nationalities to give oneself an illusory sense of control and predictability. And it can also take more banal and innocent forms, such as getting caught up in counterproductive vents among like-minded Facebook friends when there are more helpful ways to be spending one’s time. 

The only way to know for certain which type of anger you’re feeling and, thus, how (and whether) to act in light of it, is through conscious, uncensored reflection. Fortunately there are many tools to guide you in this reflection, a few of which I outline below. I have also created a custom spreadsheet (adapted from standard “thought record” tools used in cognitive behavioral therapy) that might help you structure this self-reflective process. The example I’ve filled out on the 2nd page of the spreadsheet illustrates how this process unfolded for me about a week ago, culminating in my decision to write and publish this post

  1. Check for anger in yourself. Is anything making you want to grit your teeth, clench your jaw, shake your fists, shout “what the f*ck” at the top of your lungs, etc? Here’s a worksheet with some helpful “warning signs” for anger, if you’re unsure what to look for: https://www.therapistaid.com/worksheets/anger-warning-signs.pdf 
  1. Identify (ideally in writing) the beliefs, interpretations, and general tone or attitude underlying your anger. At whom or what is this anger directed, and for what perceived offense(s)? Which of your values do you feel have been unjustly harmed or threatened by these offenses? If you “tune in” to the inner voice accompanying your anger, do you find that it is hostile, aggressive, measured, intense, sincere, defensive, controlled, muted, tantruming, self-indulgent, etc? Note that you may or may not consciously agree with these beliefs or interpretations or approve of the tone of your anger, and that’s ok. Listening to your emotions and caring about what they have to say is not the same as agreeing with them—just as listening and caring about what a beloved friend or family member has to say is not the same as agreeing with them. Suppose your elderly or immunocompromised parents are still routinely going out in public because they feel betrayed by the government and don’t trust its recommendations. Which approach would you take: would you ignore what they’re feeling and just yell at them to stay home? Or would you listen, try to understand and empathize with their feelings of betrayal and mistrust, and then explain, in terms they can understand and appreciate, why you nonetheless believe the current social distancing recommendations are sound? Psychological science tells us you’d have much better success with the latter approach. And this is every bit as true when engaging with your own emotional self. 
  1. Check whether your anger is serving to help you avoid other, more vulnerable emotions, such as fear, helplessness, sadness, or guilt. If so, acknowledge and deal with those emotions directly, seeking whatever support you need (see compiled resources here). Some questions to ask yourself to help figure this out: What would I be feeling if I weren’t busy being angry at X? What change am I actually hoping to effect here, and to what extent do I believe I can help bring it about by expressing my anger at X? Some of the questions I suggested asking yourself in my earlier post on self-honesty are also applicable here. Certain aspects of the tone or attitude you identified in Step 2 can offer clues here; for instance, if you noticed that your anger had a “defensive” tone, you might want to check what other feeling(s) it’s defending you against.
  1. If, at this point, you still feel angry: check whether your anger fits the available facts. Is the perceived offender as exclusively and/or as knowingly responsible for the perceived wrongdoing(s) as your anger is telling you? Are there any complicating or mitigating factors you have not considered? What other causal factors might be at play, if you zoom out and consider the larger context?  Note: This is by far the hardest and most intensive step, especially when applied to the massively complex and uncertainty-fraught epistemic minefield that is the current COVID19 crisis. But even just recognizing this complexity, and having a better sense of what you don’t know, can be an important step toward forming a more nuanced and reality-based view.
  1. Insofar as your anger does not fully fit the facts, or there simply aren’t enough available facts for you to make the call: accept that you might feel the anger for a while anyway, and be kind to yourself for feeling it. Remember that you do not control how you feel in the moment, but you do control how you act in response. So make a considered judgment about how you want to act, based on the available facts and your knowledge of what really matters to you.
  1. Insofar as your anger *does* fit the facts: identify the values that have been unjustly threatened or harmed, and think hard about what (if anything) you can and want to do to help right these wrongs. What are the values at stake, and the costs and benefits (both short- and long-term) of any given course of action you might take?
  1. If and as appropriate: Take bold, decisive action on behalf of your values, as informed by your thinking in the previous steps.

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