There’s a lot to be angry about right now. For starters, there’s government incompetence and flat-out lying to the American people. If that’s not enough, you’ve also got anti-abortion activists who see an opportunity, terrible rich people, protestors who care more about their lawn than human lives, more rich people, people who can't seem to figure out how social distancing works, and folks—again, rich, huh, how weird!—who made the ill-advised choice to flee their city and then have the gall to write boring essays defending their behavior.
I don’t know about you, but since this pandemic began, I’ve often felt like I could simply burst into flames. It feels unproductive and distracting and shameful, and I’d like it to stop—or to know if what I’m feeling (and how I’m processing those feelings) could be broadly considered “good” or “healthy.”
If you feel like you’re existing at a constant simmer or even a full boil, here's what to do with that energy.
Know that it’s OK to feel angry—now and always.
Even though your anger probably doesn’t feel good, it’s also not inherently bad. “Anger is not destructive in and of itself,” Andrea Bonior, a therapist and author of the upcoming book Detox Your Thoughts, told VICE. “It's when we fast forward and don't take a pause and we act destructively on it that it does damage both to ourselves and to others.” (More on that in a moment.)
Bonior said it’s important to remember that you’re allowed to feel angry even if you’ve got it relatively good right now. “People think that being grateful for the fact that it's not worse means that they’re supposed to hide those uncomfortable emotions,” she said. “But the opposite is true. It’s about going all in and actually experiencing the full range of human life rather than just saying, ‘Well, these emotions aren't acceptable.’”
Figuring out what’s at the root of your anger can help you process it.
“I would suspect that for a lot of people, anger is kind of secondary to the fear that they're feeling,” therapist Ryan Howes told VICE. He used the example of someone swerving into your lane while you’re driving. “What happens first is I feel afraid—Oh, crap, that guy's gonna hit me or I'm going to hit him. But then my immediate response after that is anger. You know, You son of a bitch, get off the road, that sort of thing.” Howes said that anger often kicks in because it allows us to feel powerful or indignant instead of afraid.
Bonior said that anger and anxiety are related in another way—both involve nervous system arousal. “We are, right now, just chronically living under threat; even the smallest decisions that normally we would take for granted now feel very threatening,” she said. “We're also just more irritable because most of us are in situations where we're stifled, we maybe feel trapped, we're not able to actually do what we want to do.”
Sadness, another emotion that can leave us feeling vulnerable, might also be the reason you’re extra angry these days. If you’re feeling sad that you lost your job, or that thousands of people have died, it makes sense that seeing yet another irresponsible and completely batshit White House press briefing would leave you feeling even more powerless—and make you want to scream.
It’s important to find some way to address your feelings that doesn’t involve screaming at every unmasked stranger you see.
Zeroing in on the fact that you’re really just feeling scared or sad right now is a great start, but can also leave you sort of like, Cool…. so…. now…. what????
The main thing to know is that you shouldn’t try to push these negative feelings away. “If you're sad, feel sad; cry, let it out, journal it out, or talk to somebody… or sit in a dark room and feel sad,” Howes said. “That's the way that we actually heal and move on. That's what grief and sadness is really about. Not about medicating it or, or pushing it away, or trying to put on a happy face.”
“If you're feeling fear, then acknowledge that,” he continued. “Accept that, Yes, I do feel afraid, it makes sense to be afraid right now—a lot of people are afraid and that's OK.”
If you can’t stop ruminating on the thing you’re pissed about or you’re having trouble snapping back, Howes said that moving your body in some way will probably help.
“[Anger] is just energy you need to kind of expel somehow,” he said. He recommended things like exercising, listening to hard rock music, dancing angrily, painting an angry picture, and writing an angry poem.
“Get your exercise, talk to your congressman, whatever,” he said. “But do those knowing that you're doing them because they're just good for you.”
I asked Howes if rage cleaning—my go-to move—is just a way of avoiding my feelings, and he said it’s not, nor are his other suggestions. “You're not pushing [feelings] away. You're expressing them,” he said. He even encouraged people to think about their rage as they do chores or work out. “Tell yourself, I can't believe you're such idiots. Get that off your chest as you're doing the physical stuff and it will provide some relief. And that helps your brain come back online to be able to think, OK, what do I really want to do about this?”
Learn to recognize the difference between managing your anger and simply numbing yourself.
Sometimes, self-soothing can slide into not engaging with your negative feelings in a meaningful way. “What you need to pay attention to is how you feel afterward,” Bonior said. If you genuinely feel better and more equipped to deal with whatever set you off, that’s a good sign, she said. But if you end up feeling less capable afterward—because, say, you’re hungover or you’ve spent a ton of money that you don’t have on things you didn’t need—and now need to do something else to take the edge off those consequences, Bonior said that could mean you were really just numbing yourself. At that point, it might be time to work on simply being present with your uncomfortable feelings.
If you haaaate letting yourself feel sadness or fear, build up your tolerance in small doses.
Bonior said to start from the belief that every emotion is OK. “Even if it doesn't feel good, it's not going to inherently harm us,” she said. “So it's a matter of accepting a broader range of a human experience and realizing, I could step away from this, I could hide from this, but ultimately, that's exactly what makes emotions more uncomfortable—because we don't learn to actually navigate them.”
From there, make a point to sit with your sadness or fear for a few minutes before you start furiously baking an apple pie. “Maybe you say, OK, boredom is really difficult for me, or Uncertainty is very difficult for me… so I'm going to set a timer for five minutes. I'm not going to escape and I'm not going to numb myself,” Bonior said. “And just for five minutes, I've built that muscle a little bit. It made me better able to handle it.”
Know that being direct with people about your feelings is OK too.
Neither Howes nor Bonior would sanction going off on, say, the couple of strangers who are pulling down their masks so they can make out in front of your mailbox. OK, fine, understood. But both said that being—respectfully—honest with your friends and family about your feelings regarding their behavior is fair game. If you’re pissed at your sibling who fled the city and now wants to come back or a housemate who has demonstrated little interest in washing their hands after using the bathroom, saying nothing can breed resentment or cause you to explode later on. So don’t feel like you have to bite your tongue… but also maybe don’t go into the conversation guns blazing.
“It might work better to look at it in terms of fear,” Howes said, “and say, ‘Hey, it makes me really scared that you’re not following social distancing orders,’ or ‘When you’re out here and you’re not wearing a mask, it makes me really concerned that you’re not being protected.’ I think you’re going to just make enemies if you’re like, ‘Hey, idiots, put a frickin’ mask on.’”
Do your best to keep venting in check.
Shouting about how pissed you are often feels great. It’s also a necessary part of processing experiences, so you shouldn’t give it up entirely. “When you’re venting, you’re getting the emotional energy out of the way so then you can get to a problem solving mode and start to figure out, OK, what am I going to do with this? What am I going to do next?” Howes said.
The problem is that venting endlessly can be exhausting for you and for the person you’re talking to; it can also trick you into thinking you’re doing something about the situation when you aren’t really. So be conscious of how much you’re whipping yourself up about the same issues. Howes said that one round of venting is usually enough. “When people start to go around for round two, kind of rehashing the same story, then you know, OK, maybe this is not really helping if we're just going to kind of take another lap around the same track,” he said.
Learn to recognize when your anger is becoming toxic.
Even though it’s not wrong to feel angry, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on whether these feelings are starting to have a major impact on your life. Bonior said that even though our lives are strange right now, we all have basic goals—e.g., eating, sleeping, and having positive conversations with coworkers and loved ones. “If your anger is intruding upon that to the point where your relationship is getting wrecked, or you're raging at people in the store, or you’re ruining your friendships, or you're unable to sleep at night, or you don't even feel like eating,” she said, that’s a sign that you might need some additional support with coping. That could look like enlisting some help from your loved ones, talking to your healthcare provider about being screened for depression, or making an appointment with a therapist (many of whom are accepting new patients remotely).
Going forward, as angry moments arise, try to address any physical effects first thing.
Do you have an overwhelming urge to pummel the guy who just ripped a huge, uncovered sneeze at the grocery store? If so, you’re not alone. “All of us have some way of holding anger in our bodies,” Bonior said. “Does your heart rate go up? Do you see your jaw get very tight? Do you clench your fists, do you feel hot all over, do you want to stamp your feet?”
“This is why people explode,” she said. “This is why people do things that they’re not proud of—why they punch a wall or unleash on somebody they love—because that physical arousal gets the best of them.”
Bonior said the first thing to do when you feel your blood start to boil is pause and try to counteract the physical aspects of anger. She suggested trying deep breathing techniques to slow your heart rate; neck rolls to release tension; and lying down with your feet elevated to relax your entire body. Things like counting to 10 can feel a bit silly in the moment, but they are classics for a reason—they work.
If you do blow up at someone, apologize—and be sure to forgive yourself, too.
Look, communicating how pissed off you are in an, uh, unproductive way is going to happen from time to time. If you regret going HAM, tell them that. “I want to apologize for calling you an inconsiderate capitalist piece of shit after you beat me at Monopoly earlier. I’m really worried about money right now, but that has nothing to do with you. I hope you know how much I appreciate the fact that you’ve been playing board games with me every night since I got laid off. I really lost my cool and I’m sorry.”
And once you’ve made amends, try not to ruminate on how badly you messed up. Instead, Howes said to think about what lesson this experience has taught you, promise yourself that you won’t let it happen again, and work on forgiving yourself and moving on. “All that inward-focused anger does is drain your energy and can make you depressed, and then then you're going to function even worse,” he said.
“We have to be compassionate with ourselves to understand that we're not going to be perhaps as patient as we normally would, and it doesn't mean we’re a bad person, but it means that we are under crisis conditions,” she said.
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Rachel Wilkerson Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People, coming May 2020. Follow her on Twitter.