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When Anger From Coronavirus is Displaced

A prominent defense mechanism may be at play while we grieve normalcy and more.

Due to the vast losses associated with coronavirus (COVID-19), many people are experiencing sadness, fear, anxiety, and loneliness, as well as anger. People may be feeling anger about deep losses related to jobs, finances, normalcy, routines, cherished activities, the health of self or loved ones, or the ability to see friends and family.

Grief expert Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has detailed the stages of grief as denial, bargaining, anger, sadness/depression, and acceptance; and author David Kessler added meaning. Research such as the Yale Bereavement Study suggests that, after a loss, disbelief and yearning often occur first, followed by anger.

A common way people protect themselves from unpleasant feelings such as anger is by engaging defense mechanisms. Displacement is a defense mechanism in which people transfer emotions from the original source to another person or situation. Because defense mechanisms are subconscious, people don’t often realize they’re taking anger from one situation and blasting it onto another.

For example:

  • A person who is angry that he/she lost her mother acts angry toward the hospice nurse who was there at the end of her life.
  • A woman is mad at her boss for putting her down in a meeting, but takes it out on a waitress over a small mistake on her order later that night.
  • A man is upset that he got rear-ended at a stoplight, then takes out his anger on his son when he gets home.

As writer Kendra Cherry states, “Physical and emotional arousal states tend to carry over from one situation to the next.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, we can be mindful that, along with the shock/disbelief and yearning for the way things were, we are all likely to carry a fair degree of anger, and at times it may be shot at people or situations with a little extra gusto that may not be warranted. This might include anger toward: teachers regarding e-learning challenges, people who don’t follow the “rules,” hoarders of toilet paper, or bosses who don’t understand unique pandemic challenges.

Because many of us are at home all the time, we need to be especially wary of taking out anger on family members, since those are likely the ones we see the most. We can gain awareness of when we may be “displacing anger,” such as snapping at a child for acting out while we're on a work call or yelling at a partner with extra vigor for not taking the garbage out.

At an extreme, displacement may be responsible for some of the surges in domestic violence due to the coronavirus pandemic, as reported by the Washington Post article which details major (sometimes 5-fold) increases in violence across countries since stay-at-home suggestions and orders began.

Once you understand your anger and where you tend to put it, you can make a conscious effort to deal with feelings in a healthier manner, such as talking with a therapist through telehealth/videoconference sessions. It’s also important to understand when you may be the target of displaced anger, so you don’t take it to heart when a conflict may be about someone else's displaced grief, not you personally.

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