Have pandemic anger management issues? How to keep your cool for your health’s sake

You’re frustrated. He’s boiling mad. And she just wants to kill someone (figuratively speaking). Everyone is on edge these days, going by the news reports we’ve read about altercations with security guards, healthcare workers being verbally abused, road bullies caught on camera and hot soup being flung for getting an order wrong.

We just can’t seem to let things go. You’d have thought that after two years of living with fluctuating COVID-19 numbers and ever-changing rules, we’d have learned to go with the flow. Apparently not.

Trying situations where patience is tested and tempers flare are aplenty in our daily lives. They don’t make it onto the news or social media platforms but that doesn’t mean they don’t occur. You know those triggers: The person who blasts videos on his handphone speaker; the one who cuts your queue, then feigns ignorance; rude email or text replies; drivers who drive like they own the road… the list goes on.

CAUSES OF PANDEMIC RAGE

The question is, are we becoming more impatient because of the pandemic? Have COVID-19-related restrictions added fuel to our already short fuse?

(Photo: iStock/deepblue4you)

Such behaviour isn’t new pre-pandemic, said Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist from Gleneagles Hospital’s Dr BL Lim Centre For Psychological Wellness. What is new, though, is the way we have developed socially.

“We have taken a more obey-the-rules or ‘law by law’ approach, rather than a graceful or empathetic one,” he said. “This results in us not putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. We get easily riled up and feel that great injustice has befallen us when people don’t follow the rules and get in our way.”

He continued: “However, many rules in society are not in black and white, and are simply unspoken norms. Some people may be unaware of these rules and some may just outright not agree to adhere to them”.

Take road rage, for instance, said KaydenSharon Perera, a counsellor and psychotherapist at Talk Your Heart Out. It was already an issue before COVID-19 but “the pandemic has certainly induced more of such bad behaviour and road rage incidents”.

(Photo: iStock/Rattankun Thongbun)

“People are under pressure and angry about a number of things and situations, and driving is a perfectly designed situation to cause anger,” she said.

“Because people are heading towards somewhere purposefully, when they get cut off by reckless drivers, they feel that their safety is being threatened or their lives have been made even more difficult by such behaviour. As such, they react with anger as a way to deal with the anxiety it has provoked,” said Perera.

She continued: “The underlying stress, isolation and trauma during the pandemic are impacting on everyday life and people are not being patient and kind with themselves and each other at the moment, which is influencing how they behave”.

Dr Lim also opined that becoming a better-educated society may have a backfiring effect. “I feel that we have developed a strong sense of self entitlement and a ‘I know better’ attitude as we become a better educated society, be it with regards to whether people should give way to us or act according to what we deem to be the correct behaviour.”

BOTTLING ANGER

Most of us would dart a couple of dirty looks in the offender’s direction or let go of a “tsk” or two at the most. “By and large, most people will tolerate and forget about the anger, and there are few consequences,” said Dr Lim.

However, if you remain angry all the time and do not process the emotion, the consequences are on you. The resulting stress “can lead to insomnia, feelings of anxiety, and physical symptoms such as tension, bruxism and palpitations”, he said.

“Anger can also elevate your blood pressure. Studies showed that after an anger outburst, the person’s risk of chest pain, heart attack, dangerous irregular heart rhythm and even stroke is increased for a couple of hours.”

It is something to think about before you let the situation get to you. And the damage doesn’t stop there. Bottling up negative emotions such as anger and anxiety can place muscles under constant tension, said Perera. “If this constant tension is not let out or dealt with, it can lead to chronic pain and could lead to the development of mental health conditions.”

REACTING TO BAD BEHAVIOUR

If we do react, Singaporeans tend to take the passive-aggressive approach. Brushing past the dawdler in front of you instead of asking to pass him or her? Tick. Complaining to your friend about the man who has just cut your queue – within his earshot? Done that.

“We are not taught to speak up from young and have generally been brought up to be non-confrontational,” said Dr Lim. “People are also worried about getting into an ugly situation if they spoke up and the other party may retaliate, or that they themselves may get into trouble.”

(Photo: iStock/KTStock)

So instead of real-life confrontations, some individuals take to the Internet to shame the other party. “I think Singaporeans are afraid of confrontation for fear of being embarrassed and ridiculed should the situation escalate with the other party. Therefore, naming and shaming online is easier and safer because of anonymity,” said Perera.

Furthermore, shaming people on social media replicates what we have been taught to do when we see bad behaviour, added Perera. “It’s an attempt to establish boundaries and those boundaries establish the structure and behaviour that we as a society approve and disapprove.”

(Photo: iStock/visual7)

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

Since reacting aggressively and bottling up your anger aren’t good options, what can you do?

“Instead of aggression or suppression, practise expressing anger in a healthy way through assertive communication techniques to articulate your feelings, needs and desires,” said Professor Megan Hays, a psychologist and assistant professor at The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Marnix E Heersink School Of Medicine.

If need be, step away from the situation, give yourself time to process your emotions, then come back to the situation when your emotions are under control to minimise speaking out of anger, she said on the university’s website.

Activities to try during the cool-down period, said Prof Hays, can range from the silly (put on some music and dance/sing the frustration out) to the creative (drawing or painting), productive (do a chore you enjoy) and active (go for a boxing class).

(Photo: iStock/Peera_Sathawirawong)

Perera said that practising empathy in normal time is another way to help you process the anger. Besides helping you to “regulate your emotions in times of stress”, empathy can also help you to connect with others, she said. 

It is an opinion echoed by Dr Hans Steiner from Stanford University’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences: “Empathy is one of the great teaching tools in shaping anger and aggression,” he said on the university’s website. “Empathy induction is a healer of anger, fury, rage and feeling at the mercy of overpowering forces. This is true for almost all of us, whether we are children or adults.”

BE A ZEN MASTER IN REAL LIFE

You can feel your face getting warmer by the second. There’s a pressure building inside your head. If you were a cartoon character, you’d be emitting steam from your nostrils after an aggravating encounter.

“You can choose to just feel annoyed transiently or you can always latch on to the anger, and feelings of unfairness and indignant for the rest of the day or even week,” said Dr Lim. It is your choice to make so decide what you think is in your best interest.”

How do you choose the Zen path? Here are some common scenarios and what you can do in each to get there.

SCENARIO 1: You feel indignant when you see someone not wearing a mask or not wearing it correctly, and getting away with it

(Photo: iStock/Bebenjy)

Perera advised not to engage in angry comments and behaviour “as the person is entitled to his choices and consequences”.

But if you feel the need to speak up, do so nicely, said Dr Lim. “You can remind him that it’s for his safety. I have done so many times in public and often in my own practice. People are usually nice about it. They may have been forgetful, careless or simply lazy but when reminded, they will comply.”

Of course, there will be always be those who do not want to cooperate. “It is not useful for you to feel indignant. Instead, do your best to protect yourself and be proud of yourself for your civic mindedness,” he advised.

SCENARIO 2: A car cuts you off, causing you to slam your brakes

(Photo: iStock/tsvibrav)

It is natural to want to lash out after such an encounter. “You may think that the other party is being dangerous and have endangered your life. This may or may not be true. Sometimes there may be valid reasons why the car had to swerve into your lane,” said Dr Lim.

“Even if the driver is driving dangerously, it is not useful to just harp on the issue and spoil your entire day. The worst you can do is to try to seek revenge by chasing the other party and in doing so, drive dangerously and endanger yourself further,” he said.

Instead, let the car go, and take in deep breaths to regulate your emotions if you are feeling upset, advised Perera. “Keep a safe distance from the car, or change lane and carry on.”

If you feel you have to do something, be useful by making a complaint with the traffic police, especially if you have video footage, said Dr Lim. “This way, you not only seek redress but also ensure the road is safer for others.”

SCENARIO 3: Someone fights you for a table, claiming that he was there first

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This situation may become more common as COVID-19 restrictions get eased and more people choose to eat out. “If it is in you to reason with this person, you can try to do so,” said Dr Lim. “Some may back off when you stand firm.”

However, if the other party is unreasonable and you cannot resolve the conflict in a calm manner, getting annoyed or aggressive won’t solve the problem, said Dr Lim. “It is not useful for you nor in your interest to further waste your time or effort. Just look for another seat.”

SCENARIO 4:A fellow passenger plays his YouTube video or music at full blast on the bus or MRT

(Photo: iStock/Ivan Pantic)

As annoyed as you are, play nice, said Perera. “Ask the person nicely if the volume could be toned down.” Doing so civilly can also help educate others about proper etiquette on public transportation, said Dr Lim.

If the person refuses, do not engage in aggressive behaviour or comments, said Perera. “Pull out your headphones and listen to your music. Or close your eyes and practise mindful meditation.” Or simple move away, added Dr Lim.

SCENARIO 5: Someone cuts your queue and pretends he doesn’t know you were in front of him

(Photo: iStock/Edwin Tan)

Tap him on the shoulder and inform him about it as he may be unaware, said Perera. But if the person ignores, let the person pass.

“You can also alert the people in charge of the queue cutting,” said Dr Lim. “Everyone in the queue will support you. Generally, when singled out, queue cutters will quietly leave the queue.”

Again, if the person is unreasonable or even aggressive, it is not in your interest to pick a fight, advised Dr Lim.

SCENARIO 6: Your upstairs neighbour is creating noise (again)

(Photo: iStock/SIphotography)

Kindness is the word, said Perera. “Check in with the neighbours to first ensure that they are alright and then tell them politely about the noise and seek their understanding,” she said. “Be polite and kind as very often people respond to kindness with kindness.”

Dr Lim suggests the nice approach as well. “Should he refuse to improve, you can gather evidence and go to the authority.”

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