When the pandemic first struck the United States, I, like most people, was concerned about its impact and yet I was able to handle the anxiety about infection pretty well. After all, managing anxiety is my stock-in-trade ability, and I used the skills I’ve learned and taught to people to excellent effect.
During most of the first year I felt very accepting—almost serene—accepting the downsides of the situation, going through personal losses but feeling allied with the rest of the population who was also suffering loss and disappointments. I was busy in my therapy practice, helping many people deal with fear, losses, and added work and stress. I even wrote a book about managing the emotional strain of the pandemic. I expected to continue in that accepting frame of mind, but, instead, two years later, what I feel most of the time now is anger. And I do not find it easy to look for joy in life when I am in the turmoil of anger.
This is not my normal state. I’m a passionate person and express my opinions freely, but I’m also typically calm when faced with problems. So, this kind of constant irritation bubbling under my daily life is not my usual response. But when it comes to the pandemic, I am angry.
I could, right now, list all the things I’m angry about, and I’m guessing that many readers would nod in agreement about many items on my extensive list, but that exercise would not be helpful to anyone!
I’m trying not to ruminate about things that make me angry, however. I’m aware that mindfulness and the acceptance it brings are an excellent and worthy path out of responding emotionally to situations that are not in my control. I’m quite certain the Dalai Lama is not wasting inner life on anger. Meditation is quite helpful to get into a better emotional spot. And I practice the Serenity Prayer quite a lot. It helps!
So, something else must be going on. I’ve been using my anxiety management skills to figure out what exactly is going on with me when I’m so atypically angry. When working with clients, I often urge people with anxiety issues who have spikes of anger to ask themselves, during the moment they feel angry, “If I were anxious, what would I be anxious about?” I suggest that they very quickly, without thinking too much, write down a list of their list of anxieties, whatever comes to mind. Afterward, they can reflect on the list and cross off anything that they don’t have to worry about. For example, I could be anxious about being asymptomatic and making others sick without realizing it. But I’m careful enough not to really worry about that, so I can cross that off my list.
When I asked myself what I might be anxious about, I found my anger did reflect anxiety, and it became clear that I’m using anger to deflect from anxiety. And I can do a better job of managing anxiety, so I don’t hurt myself or others by directing anger outward as a release of anxiety.
Uncertainty, more than any other issue, is a significant cause of worry and anxiety. The pandemic has brought huge waves of uncertainty. Anxious people are often quite good at dealing with real, tangible problems, but the pandemic and interrelated social problems have brought all kinds of problems defined by uncertainty. Many, if not all, of us are facing uncertainties big and small: I cannot be certain about whether my country will survive the various crises that we face. I cannot know when my family can plan a vacation that won’t get canceled. I cannot know if I plan a birthday party if half of those invited will cancel. I cannot know if kids will have to go to remote learning and throw parents’ lives into upheaval. I cannot know if I will get called in to work every day off to cover shifts or if I will get called off work because of closures.
Acceptance can crumple from the weight of such constant pressure. We see how this is happening with people all around us. Some people have lost patience with precautions and chosen to join the ranks of people who never showed carefulness if it meant giving up fun. Being vaccinated makes that personally less risky, but it does not make it easier on our healthcare system. Throwing caution to the wind is not an altruistic choice of behavior. We can’t know for sure, which situations will spread the virus and harm people. This persistent pressure to be constantly evaluating, especially with constantly changing variants, is stressful and confusing. How long, oh Lord, are we going to have to keep this up? We are all tired of it, and it’s been making us angry!
It’s too hard to keep feeling anxious. It’s easier to have something to focus on. Because we cannot see the virus or change its infection rates, it’s easier to direct anger at other people, at political parties, at family members who are, frankly, just acting stupidly, or at school boards who allow wrong curriculums, or at news organizations who seem to report their bias rather than facts, or at people who just plain not like me. And therein lies the rub. That anger is not fixing anything. Anger is like an acid destroying a container from the inside out. In this case, I am the container whose equanimity is being eaten away.
Even when angry, I try not to show my anger, and many of your clients don’t want to show theirs either, although they may see it leaking out with too-easy irritation at home. One of my clients who called to ask for support because she blew up at her son. She was stressed by covering sales shifts at her store when too many of her staff called in sick. Her son neglected his chores in favor of playing video games, thus making her life harder. She was acting out of stress. All across the country, there are many people acting out their stress, and it’s quite destructive. My client’s blow-up at her son is one small personal example of a broader issue with anger that we see reported on a national level every day: The people who act out on airplanes, the politicians who adamantly won’t work together, the obvious racial bias that infects our culture, and so on.
Most of us cannot take on the public figures who make the news, but we can make a difference for individuals we work with. If your clients are feeling their anger, it may help to reflect with them on how the only person being hurt by this kind of anger is the one who feels it. We can help clients who are aware of their anger by asking about the anxiety that may lurk beneath their anger.
Shifting our attention to resolving anxiety usually loosens the grip of anger. We can address the specific ways the anxiety is affecting the individual, and there are many tools to handle personal anxiety or worry. And then once we’ve addressed the underlying anxiety, we can move to finding mindfulness and acceptance. Then the Serenity Prayer can be more helpful as we see we are powerless over an invisible virus (and all of the huge global and national issues that it affects). Once, we’ve moved toward acceptance, we can make decisions about whether there is anything in the situation that we can influence and, if so, what action we can take now or soon. Finally, when I identify how I can move into action, my anxiety decreases. I can put one foot in front of the other.
I was very ready to give up being angry, even if it meant recognizing my anxiety about how little I can control about the pandemic because I want my emotional life to be filled with hope and joy. For my own sake. For your sake, I hope you will find a path to acceptance and action to create a joyful 2022.
Margaret Wehrenberg, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist, author, and international trainer. Her most recent book is Pandemic Anxiety: Fear, Stress, and Loss in Traumatic Times.
Photo © iStock/Aleksei Morozov
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