Coping with anger during COVID-19

I was already frustrated as I looked around to see the dishes left on the kitchen, the papers scattered everywhere, and my children attached to electronic devices. When my thirteen-year-old son asked me to get him yet another sandwich and glass of milk while he played on his computer, I lost it. I exploded, yelling that he could get off his butt and get his own darn sandwich. He stared at me in shock, and it took me a minute to calm down before I could apologize. Yelling had felt good, like letting off steam that had been building to an unbearable pressure point. Clearly, I was angry. But why was I that angry at something that seems so typical?

Anger is often considered a “secondary emotion”— meaning we feel some other emotion first. We use anger to protect ourselves or to mask other vulnerable feelings. Of course, anger is a natural, instinctive response to real, immediate threats, like being mugged. But when it’s not, it can be part of the five stages of grief (see Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross On Death and Dying): denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. For me, my anger comes from denial—at first, I was hopeful that school wouldn’t be canceled for my kids; then I thought it wouldn’t last that long. But as the time has expanded by weeks, and then for the rest of the school year, I can no longer deny that this is my new normal. And I guess that made me mad.

Other people are surely experiencing the same thing—maybe we’re angry because we’re separated from loved ones, or we’re worried about the coronavirus; maybe we’re worried about our jobs, or about the uncertainty of these times. It’s about all of that for me, but even as I enjoy the unexpected time with my children, I mourn for the way things used to be. And yet, I know that anger isn’t the answer; that for me, it’s a reaction to a secondary underlying emotion—fear, grief, denial—and that if I blow up on my children, I’ll not only damage my relationships with them, I’ll teach them that it’s acceptable to take your anger out on someone else instead of learning to manage it productively. As I’ve learned, unresolved anger leads to all sorts of problems, from heart disease and a weakened immune system, to high blood pressure and insomnia.

It’s hard to stop yourself before you blow up on someone—it takes self-awareness and discipline. Examining your feelings, taking five minutes before responding, or waiting overnight to respond if possible are all appropriate ways to handle your anger. Managing emotions is key to health and happiness; knowing what you can control, and what you cannot, is also critical. And knowing that you can express your emotions—call a friend, a mentor, or reach out for professional help when you need to. We now offer The Center Support Line, a 24/7 phone line at 970-252-6220, for those times when you just need to talk through what’s going on and get some tools for coping.

For me, I’ve discovered that if I am able to carve out alone time for myself, I am much better able to manage my anger. I take the early morning time to exercise, to do the things that I can’t during the day. Now, when my children ask me to get them some food for the hundredth time a day, I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and say, “there’s plenty of food in the kitchen; I’m sure you can get something that you’ll enjoy. And won’t it feel good to be independent?!”

If you are interested in learning about our services or more information, call us at 970-252-3200 or visit www.centermh.org.

Written by Kimberly Behounek and Kate Hurley, The Center for Mental Health