Americans are angry. The country erupted into the worst civil unrest in decades after the death of George Floyd, and anger about police violence and the country’s legacy of racism is still running high. At the same time, we’re dealing with anger provoked by the coronavirus pandemic: anger at public officials because they’ve shut down parts of society, or anger because they aren’t doing enough to curb the virus. Anger about being required to wear a mask, or anger toward people who refuse to wear a mask. Anger with anyone who doesn’t see things the “right” way.
“We’re living, in effect, in a big anger incubator,” said Raymond Novaco, a psychology professor at the University of California at Irvine, who has expertise in anger assessment and treatment.
According to psychiatrist Joshua Morganstein, the country is now dealing with “three disasters superimposed on top of one another”: the pandemic, the economic fallout and civil unrest. “Certainly, one way of responding, and a common way of responding, is anger,” said Morganstein, who chairs the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on the Psychiatric Dimensions of Disaster.
Surveys over the past few years suggested that anger had risen in the country even before the 2020 crises. A Gallup poll conducted in 2018, for example, concluded that Americans’ stress, worry and anger had intensified that year. Twenty-two percent of Americans had felt anger the previous day, up from 17 percent the previous year.
The emergency weekly surveys conducted since April by the Census Bureau and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention don’t ask specifically about anger. But they reveal that many Americans are anxious or depressed – especially black and Asian Americans in the week following George Floyd’s death. Both anxiety and depression can manifest as anger.
Anger is also an understandable reaction to the uncertainty inherent in the pandemic and protests, said Larissa Tiedens, a social psychologist and president of Scripps College in California. “We know that uncertainty as both as a cognitive and emotional state is one that people want to resolve,” she said. Anger is one way to do that. “By being angry about something,” she said,” you get to leave your feelings of uncertainty for a while and occupy a space and a sensibility of certainty and clarity and confidence.”
Although some anger is inevitable, it becomes a problem “when it is sustained or there are recurrent/repetitive bouts of it without use of other positive coping tools,” Damon Tweedy, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University’s School of Medicine, wrote in an email. Unmanaged anger can erupt into aggressive behavior against others, which is of particular concern now; domestic violence cases have spiked during the pandemic, and experts believe children at home with abusive parents are in increased danger. Anger can also harm our own health by affecting the cardiovascular, neurological and endocrine systems.
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