Sunday scaries

Why coronavirus is making us angry, and what to do about it

Experts advise on what to do with your Covid-19 anger.

An illustrated fist punching the air representing anger due to coronavirus

According to a recent poll conducted by The New York Times and Siena College, the majority of registered voters in the United States are angry. That’s fair. Polls from 2019 show that 84 percent of Americans were angrier than Americans who were asked that question a generation ago. Today, we are living in what experts call an “anger incubator,” a space where infuriating factors meet, meld, and spiral.

Individual factors can make you angry, and persistent anger can make you feel angry more often. Chris*, a 25-year-old theatrical carpenter and technician, tells Inverse his anger flares up more frequently now than it did before the Covid-19 pandemic. Smaller things than usual can set it off, and when anger is expressed at a greater level, a spill in the kitchen can result in punting the pan.

“That’s the kind of thing I’d see my father do when I was a kid, and why I’ve been working on recognizing anger in myself since I was 15. I haven’t let it out like that in years,” Chris says. “When one thing goes bad, it feels like I’m not just upset over that isolated thing — it’s all of it.”

Chris has reason to be angry. In October, he moved to New York for work and in November he lost two fingers in a work accident. In March, when his doctors said he could return to work, all theaters in New York were ordered to close. His problems piled up, and even on OK days, “the balance just feels tipped,” and the bad can undermine the good.

“It’s important to note, it’s not just anger going on,” Chris says. “There’s some light despair, a ‘fun’ emotional void where I just don’t feel at all for a while, and general anxiety about not knowing what’s next for my future, my industry, or my health.”

Anger and anxiety — Chris is not alone in his experience. Anger can be stirred by one event, and be further fueled by another emotion — especially anxiety. Peter Kuppens is a professor of psychology at KU Leuven, a research university in Belgium. He tells Inverse that anxiety and anger are linked in a number of ways. These include the fact that aversiveness in itself can generate anger — and anxiety is a very aversive state. Kuppen’s own research has found that emotions of a similar valence can augment each other — the dynamic interplay of anxiety and anger increasing each other’s effectiveness.

Roger Giner-Sorolla is a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent. He notes that, as two negative emotions, “anxiety and anger are always going to feed into the same general negative state.”

“What often happens is that anger is perceived as the more desirable emotion, because it goes together with some sense of control. You know what you are angry at, and you feel the urge to strike out at it so that it is better than the kind of free-floating worry that anxiety creates,” Giner-Sorolla tells Inverse. “Therefore, it is not surprising that some people, in order to manage anxiety, seek out scapegoats, and turn that negative feeling into anger.”

Anger and anxiety are both reactions to threats, and in turn, signal our fight-or-flight response, Dr. Melanie Baldali, a registered psychologist and a board director at Anxiety Canada, tells Inverse. This also helps explain why anxiety can spiral into anger. When you’re on watch for threats, you can experience an increase in physiological arousal-tension. It can feel good to be angry — with someone who is not wearing a mask, with a flung pan. That feeling is also short-lived.

When anger comes out — While instinct might suggest that anger you feel because of something more tangible — a person who has wronged you; a setback at work — is different than the anger linked to something larger and seemingly more abstract — the Covid-19 pandemic; racists policies — both Kuppens and Giner-Sorolla say this is not the case. Both forms of anger stem from encountering obstacles to your goals and are often paired with a sense of unfairness or injustice.

“We get emotional about things that matter to us,” Kuppens bluntly puts it. “A concrete personal situation may matter to us, and the pandemic matters to us. I don’t think there is a difference.”

Anger can also morph into resentment, Giner-Sorolla explains. Research conducted by one of his Ph.D. students, Anki Wikman, has found that anger linked to injustice can create feelings of resentment if you realize that expressing anger isn’t going to be possible. No one is actually going to listen to you.

“If anger is towards something that by definition cannot be argued or reasoned with, like the virus, then unproductive resentment is naturally going to occur,” he says. “It’s a negative and upsetting feeling that keeps the anger alive, but it is not immediately productive.”

What to do with anger — What to do with your anger depends on where you are in your life and what is causing your anger. The best check-in to make sure your anger doesn’t spiral out of control, Giner-Sorolla says, is reality. Accept that it’s OK to feel angry and ask yourself realistically what expressing anger can achieve.

In some cases, it can achieve a lot: mending an issue with a friend, voting a politician out of office. It can open up necessary discussions and motivate you to find solutions.

Getting to that place is also not the easiest thing to do. Badali’s anger management strategies are informed by cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy. Both types of psychotherapy involve asking whether our angry emotions fit the facts of a situation, choosing helpful, effective actions, and “using emotional regulation and distress tolerance strategies when we must accept the situation and cannot change it,” Badali says.

“For both anxiety and anger management, I think it is helpful for people to identify what is in your control and what is not in your control right now,” Badali tells Inverse.

Meanwhile, Giner-Sorolla notes, research shows that the least healthy way to manage anger is to mull and stew over it.

Chris is actively working on managing his anger. He received guidance from a clinician at the Actor’s Fund and has tried CBT. He listens to metal music, does yoga, and reads — and reads.

“Those all help in trying to preempt anger,” Chris says. “Once it’s there, or coming up, it’s different. I know how to recognize when a project is going sideways, and it’s time to put down the tools and just try again later.”

*Name has been changed.

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