Health

Here’s Why Everyone Is Acting Like An Asshole Lately

There’s a scientific explanation for why we’re all at each other’s throats.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
March 10, 2021, 3:23pm
A transmasculine person with a furry blue coat checking his phone on the sidewalk

Over this past pandemic year, we’ve seen astonishing displays of generosity, solidarity, and compassion. On our best days, we’ve linked proverbial arms with strangers and taken part in mutual aid drives, massive bail fund donations, GoFundMe boosts, and street action; we’ve also shown up for struggling loved ones, and received the same care and support in return. Ultimately, though, not every day can be our best day. More and more, bad moods seem to be prevailing, and bad interpersonal behavior follows accordingly. 

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A few totally hypothetical examples: roommate group chat “drama” over a kitchen counter that’s not quite immaculate; a thicket of subtweets so dense you’d need a machete to slice through them; skepticism of whether a co-worker “cut in line” to get a vaccine; an eye-roll at a photo of an acquaintance’s newborn baby; or a “thumbs up” response to a friend’s text instead of the real response they clearly wanted. Basically, a lot of us aren’t exactly being “nice” right now, and we’re definitely not being kind. 

Writer Maya Kosoff wrote about this ambient bitchiness, especially potent Online, in a Medium post—where she gently suggested that we’re misdirecting our anger at our loved (and not-so-loved) ones instead of aiming it where it belongs: at the people and systems that put us in this position in the first place. VICE has written about pandemic-related anger before, too, which felt especially potent when public safety protocol was more nebulous and COVID rulebreaking had more potential for pronounced consequences. Now, our anger is likely a lot less righteous, especially when it’s directed at people whose circumstances we can't possibly know

Why might rudeness, meanness, and pettiness be guiding our actions right now? According to therapist Ashley McHan, the answer is simple: we’re tired, and as Kosoff wrote, we’re tired because of forces outside our control. “Over time we get fatigued,” McHan told VICE. “If there hasn't been change happening around us or there hasn't been improvement of situations, our ability to tolerate them is going to decrease… Our ability to cope might eventually piddle out.”

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Over the course of the pandemic, McHan said we’ve taken everything we can to the chin as far as our “window of tolerance” allows. “The window of tolerance is a cool concept when we're looking at our ability to regulate emotions, to tolerate distress, to tolerate stress, frustration, and just how we generally respond to and handle difficult moments,” McHan said. She suggested we picture a window cracked open by four inches. Anything that can fit through that opening is bearable—we can handle it without getting worked up. Any additional stressors beyond that window, however, put us in a state of arousal that’s not our norm. 

That can look like hypoarousal, which means shutting down and closing yourself off completely, or hyperarousal, the kind of twitchy, excited state that magnifies emotions and can lead us to lash out at other people just to do… something. In a state of hyperarousal, “something small happens, and we're yelling, right, like slamming things down or stomping off,” she said. “It's kind of like a tantrum in an adult.”

That’s not to say anger must be avoided at all costs. In the face of government failure, systemic inequality, police violence, and mass evictions, anger is the only logical reaction. If we use that anger to spur change, we’re on the right track. “Some of the anger we felt this year was really good for us, right?” McHan said. “Like, OK, we're awake—that’s the positive function of hyperarousal. But when we stay in it too long, it does harm.” 

An easy way to tell whether your response to anger is good for you? See how it makes you feel. McHan recommended asking yourself a few questions: “Does this bring me into a more regulated state? What happens mentally, physically and emotionally when I do this? Is there more groundedness, more clarity, more calm? Or is there more unrest?”

Before you try to take your gripes external, McHan said it’s essential to bring yourself down to equilibrium by developing coping mechanisms that you can act on in private. She suggested writing an angry letter (and ripping it up!), screaming into a pillow, throwing a tennis ball at a wall, taking a freezing cold shower—something physical, in the moment, that helps burn off the visceral feeling of rage and arousal. “Match the intensity of the feeling, but choose something that doesn't do harm,” she said. “When you're in a calm and grounded place, you can then choose how to act, respond, and engage with others.”

Be honest with yourself about whether typing out and posting “Linecutters getting brunch again huh :) nice to see we’ve learned nothing :)” lets you forget your gripe and move on, or whether it actually keeps you scanning your feed for responsive subtweets, looking to prolong the adrenaline rush of anger. If it’s the latter, then the behavior isn’t a healthy coping strategy, and it’s not going to make anyone feel better in the long run. 

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