Anger: Another Side Effect of the Pandemic?

"Why isn't it over, already?!" is the cry of frustration.

Posted Oct 06, 2020

“I found out why my jaw was hurting so much,” a friend tells me on the phone. “I have been grinding my teeth in my sleep, and even when I am awake. The dentist gave me something to put in my mouth at night to stop. And do you know why I grind my teeth?” She continued before I could reply. “It is because I am angry all the time.”

Welcome to the club, I thought when I hung up. Do I know anyone who is not angry at least some of the time these past months? People have always found something that makes them angry, usually temporarily: the weather, traffic, or if their favorite team loses an important game. But now there seems to be a miasma hanging over many of us that is keeping us angry. It is due to, in large part, to how the pandemic has changed our lives, perhaps permanently.   

For some of us, anger is often one emotional step away from sorrow, e.g., “I am angry/sad that my plans to see my children, go to a wedding, visit Alaska, visit a parent in a nursing home etcetera, have been canceled because of the pandemic.” Unfortunately, for many, the anger/sorrow is a consequence of a dire financial situation, severe sickness or even death of a loved one, long months of separation from family, and, for many others, the current economic and political environment. There have been anecdotal reports of people within a household becoming increasingly irritable and angry when the 24/7 togetherness of the pandemic lifestyle makes them exquisitely sensitive to the annoying behavior of others.

That anger has an impact on health is not in dispute. According to an extensive review of the recent literature on how anger is a risk factor for health, Staicu and Cutov cite studies showing that anger may contribute to coronary heart disease and hypertension. Interestingly, the relationship is more pronounced among men than women. 

There also seemed to be a relationship between bulimia, a trait called impulsivity, and anger. Individuals who showed a high degree of impulsivity on psychological tests were more likely to binge eat when angry than those with lower impulsivity scores. Eating without thought of caloric consequences is not that unusual for many people when they are feeling angry and perhaps helpless. A weight-loss clinic participant told me of a candy bar eating binge when she discovered that renovations in her home left all her closets too small to fit a hanger inside. “I was unpacking my clothes and went to hang them up. There was no way I could fit them inside the closet, so I did the obvious. I went to a convenience store, bought three candy bars, and inhaled them,” she told me.

Chronic anger is also associated with obesity, the risk of type 2 diabetes, and smoking. And obviously, interpersonal relationships suffer. When we studied women with premenstrual syndrome, one woman told us she wanted to be in the study because her PMS made her excessively angry, and this was affecting her relationship with her young daughter. And a weight-loss client told me her 35-pound weight gain was a result of, in her words, gobbling her food at meals to prevent herself from screaming at her husband with whom she was very angry. (He was having an affair; when they divorced, she lost her anger and her weight.)

Is it possible that anger is increasing among us as a result of the pandemic? Dr. David Rosmarin, who runs the Spirituality and Mental Health program at McLean Hospital, a Harvard University-affiliated psychiatric hospital, says it is. In an interview for the Harvard Gazette with Alvin Powell in August, Dr. Rosmarin suggests that anger may also be a manifestation of helplessness. For example, fear of the virus per se, or fear of being caught in situations that increase our vulnerability to the virus may result in anger. In other words, according to Dr. Rosmarin, we are helpless, and we experience anger to hide our helplessness.  

Depression may also increase our feelings of anger, and the past several months have demonstrated a significant increase in depression. In a survey of 5,065 respondents prior to COVID-19 and 1,441 respondents after the pandemic began, the authors found that the prevalence of depression was three-fold higher following the onset of the pandemic. Depression and anger may be linked; in some cases, the feeling of depression is transformed into anger directed inward. The depressed individual becomes angry with him/herself but may also show hostility toward others.

How to handle anger that has not reached the level of a disorder, but rather a prevailing unpleasant emotion? Suggestions include taking deep breaths, exercise, controlling impulsive speech, sharing humorous stories with others, and giving oneself a break from an endless to-do list. Avoiding situations that might trigger angry responses is helpful. Many people refuse to talk about topics that they know will affect them emotionally, and deliberately do not watch television programs that they believe will increase their anger. Distraction, also known as a redirect to a new experience, certainly helps. Listening to an audiobook and becoming immersed in an engaging story deflects anger, as does having a phone call with someone who is usually in a good mood. Wearing masks may even help. We can’t see people’s expressions, and thus we may be avoiding angry faces without even knowing it.

My friend who avoids talking about topics that might incite negative emotions told me that every day she tries to find something that brings pleasure and joy, even for a few minutes. It might be a sunrise, or a dolphin (she lives near a bay), or a piece of music on the radio. “When I am ready to hit my head against the wall out of frustration and anger,” she told me, “I think of something that made me smile, and I feel better.”