The freeway is a terrible place for my emotional health. 

Perhaps like you, the chance to leave the house for something essential is a bit of a treat these days. A couple of days ago, we needed bread. So, I joyfully hopped in the car to head to my favorite locally-owned bakery with thoughts of fresh sourdough on my mind. 

Joy quickly turned to temper as I entered the on-ramp and encountered other—I’ll call them “drivers”—on the road. Let’s just say that those around did not have the same philosophy of operating a motor vehicle as me. They were either too slow, too fast, or just too unlike me in how I preferred them to drive. I’m a bit ashamed to admit it: choice words flew, and the stink-eye was given from the driver’s seat on several different occasions. I mean, I was irate, irked, ill-tempered. Don’t these people know when a loaf of sourdough is on the line?

I’ve yet to understand what it is about the freeway that can turn my elation into exasperation, my peace into petulance. And maybe for you, it feels like the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, with all the quarantining, working from home, homeschooling, and mask-wearing, have been escalating trips on the freeway of fury. You may be asking yourself, why is COVID-19 making me so dadgum angry? 

Here’s the Situation

We get angry because there’s an unresolved issue somewhere. Many times that issue is buried more deeply in our psyche than we think. Even though I haven’t figured out my deal with freeway driving, I’m pretty sure it’s not the drivers around me that have me boiling. Even if they really are terrible drivers, they’re just the triggers, the spark that sets off the gasoline-doused woodpile already set up in my mind. 

And the COVID-19 crisis has provided us with lots of potential for things to go up in the flames of anger. Consider the situation we’re in: 

  1. The threshold of our tolerance is at an all-time low due to the stress and anxiety that is so common during this time. Most of us are basically on a short fuse. Times are uncertain. Uncertainty begets a sense of lack of control, which begets negative emotions, which begets anger. Pile up the wood and pour on the gas…
  1. Things going on around us are magnified at an all-time high. We’re home and around the people we live with so… much… more. You notice things you never saw before—little, annoying, nit-picky, normally-inconsequential things—which now drive you absolutely bananas. You know what I’m talking about. He leaves his shoes in the living room all the time. She won’t stop texting me while I’m trying to work. The kids are loud, hungry, bored, tired, whiney. One little match on the pile… kaboom.

The Problem With the Kaboom

When we allow the pile to build and the match to drop, it puts a terrible strain on our emotional health and our relationships. When the kaboom occurs, stress hormones flood the brain. Those hormones override the part that handles impulse control, consideration of the consequences of your actions, and the ability to use logic and process empathy, compassion and guilt. We basically lose the ability to govern these higher-order thinking skills in order to compensate for surviving what we perceive as a threat. We go into a “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. 

And this is when people tend to react, give stink-eyes from driver’s seats, fly off the handle, go off on someone, lose their everloving stuff. It’s bad for your emotional health, and it’s bad for your relationships with the people around you. 

Strategies for Dealing With Anger

Below I’d like to offer some strategies for preventing our anger from flaming up. Before jumping in, however, it’s important to acknowledge one thought: anger is normal. In and of itself, it’s a neutral emotion. Heck, countless social justice movements were successfully launched because someone was angry with a legitimate issue. So give yourself some grace. Know that your anger is okay; it’s all in how you manage your anger, what you do with it. 

Here are some things to think about: 

  • When you’re triggered, take a timeout so the spark can burn out. Marriage researcher and relationship expert Dr. John Gottman found out that it typically takes at least 20 minutes of “self-soothing” for the brain transition out of “fight, flight, or freeze” and to get back to normal working order. For you fellow “manly-men” out there reading this, self-soothing sounds a little… tame. However, this is your best ally to keep the woodpile from blowing up and saying or doing something you’ll regret. Take a walk, shoot some hoops, play an instrument, weed the garden, bake a cake—whatever it takes to take the heat out of the spark. 
  • Explore your anger. This might sound a little psycho-babblish, but the idea is to consider what’s really going on inside that’s making the anger build. Sure, something your spouse or kids (or the drivers on the road) did trigger something; but ask, what’s the real issue here? Is it the stress of this pandemic? Is it the unknown, the uncertainty? Are you missing people you normally see in person? Are there ways you’ve typically coped that aren’t available right now? And are you getting enough exercise, rest, clean food, or connection with the people you love? Exploring these ideas is akin to disassembling the giant gas-laden woodpile that’s been building in your mind so that the next time something lights a spark, the tendency for a kaboom is much less. 
  • Recognize the things that are giving you joy during this time. Has there been an upside to being at home more? Has there been more opportunity to hang with your spouse and the kids? Or maybe to learn a new hobby or rekindle an old one? Have you been given the margin to read more, exercise more, watch more movies, complete home projects, or just enjoy the outside? Recognizing the joys that are coming out of this situation is essential to handling your anger so that the anger doesn’t handle you. Acknowledge these joys on a daily basis and adopt a sense of gratitude for those things. When you do, you’ll notice the positive shift in your attitude in no time. 

Anger is a normal emotion. Understand how it affects you physically and mentally, have a plan for it, and learn from it as you focus on the positive things in your life!

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