Since the beginning of COVID-19, I have consistently been receiving calls from clients asking for help controlling their anger. With concerns around social distancing, less assistance is available to families. In my line of work, helping those caring for relatives with dementia, I see fewer resources available to assist with care. At home, school closures leave parents, such as myself, with little respite. When schools do open, the anxiety around potential closure is always looming. There is fear around getting sick and managing the illness along with quarantining after you catch it. Everyone is spending more time inside with family, with very little reprieve. The anxiety and fear can be pervasive, and it can be easy to develop a short fuse after living in these conditions for so many months.
Anger is a secondary emotion, which means it covers up an original emotion. It can be triggered by feelings of powerlessness, fear, sadness, and grief. By getting to the underlying feeling, you can identify what your anger is telling you. It is common for people to experience anger when faced with loss, which can be triggered not just by death but by illness, job loss and other disappointments. There is even something called ambiguous loss. A term coined by psychologist Pauline Boss, this is a loss that is felt by those whose loved ones are “there but not there,” such as in the case of dementia, soldiers who are MIA or an emotionally absent parent.
While largely demonized, anger is a neutral emotion. It is a signal for us to know that something is not working. This does not mean that it’s ok to act out in anger. When you experience a situation that you cannot control or change, rather than trying to squelch the inevitable feelings of anger, I invite you to breathe, take a step back, and acknowledge the feeling. By giving your feelings space and paying attention to them, you can try to pinpoint what is not working for you, which is the first step in working through the anger.
Next, try to figure out and acknowledge exactly what is not working for you. Do you need a break from a routine or a person who is bringing you down? Are there things you can’t change where you may need to work on acceptance? Do you need to set boundaries with others? Are there alternate ways you can handle a difficult situation?
There’s another important piece to this discussion. We are much more likely to get angry when we are feeling bad about ourselves, either physically or emotionally. Taking the time to feel better will help in working on feelings of anger.
Nowadays there is a lot of talk about self-care. Much of the time, the term self-care conjures up massages, manicures, vacations- things that are luxurious and can cost a lot of money. While these things can be nice and relaxing, they are not the only things which encompass the term self-care. Self-care is really more of an attitude than an action. It’s about making sure that you are cared for in mind, body and soul. It means attending to “not fun” things like making good financial decisions, setting boundaries with others who take away your energy, and taking time to care for your body in the form of healthy eating and exercise. Taking time to pray, learn and perform other mitzvos (commandments) can likewise be a form of self-care.
A major focus of self-care in recent years has been on self-compassion. Self-Compassion is the idea that just as you show kindness to others, you show kindness to yourself. It means talking to yourself as you would a dear friend. Psychologist Kristin Neff has identified the core components of self-compassion as mindfulness, self-kindness and common humanity.
Mindfulness is the idea of taking things in moment by moment and taking the time to focus on what you are doing, instead of acting mindlessly. The classic way people practice mindfulness is to take some time out of their day to sit and focus on their breathing, but there are other ways to incorporate this practice as well, including eating mindfully or just taking a walk. The idea is to do things with intention and focus.
Self-kindness is exactly what it sounds like. How often do we beat ourselves up for making a mistake? Our self-talk may sound something like this: “Stupid, how could you have done that?” The vast majority of us would never talk that way to other people. Often when we are talking to friends who have made mistakes, we will reassure them they tried their best, or that things will be better next time. Self-kindness is an exercise in saying those same exact things to ourselves. It is all about considering ourselves the way we would a dear friend.
Common humanity is the recognition that all people struggle. While our struggles may look different, there is no person in life who has not had struggles. By connecting with this concept it is easier not to beat ourselves up for mistakes or for things that do not go our way. It is part of the human experience.
These ideas are an introduction to tackling feelings of anger. If you find that your anger is overwhelming or you have trouble calming down, it is best to find a trusted counselor to speak about your situation more in-depth. This can be another form of self-care.
Adina Segal, LCSW is the Orthodox Jewish Outreach Social Worker at CaringKind, where she provides emotional support to families affected by all forms of dementia. Adina is passionate about helping people thrive through difficulties and has worked with family caregivers over the past 13 years. She may be contacted at email@example.com