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Ways to Manage Pandemic Agitation

What we need is self-agency during all this uncertainty.

Key points

  • Many people are releasing their agitation from the ongoing pandemic at the customer service industry.
  • Science now understands that trauma can get stuck in our bodies, and physical movement helps release pent-up emotions.
  • With consistent physical discharge of accumulated stress, annoyances don't have to turn into angry outbursts.

An article in The New York Times described an increase in outbursts in the customer service industry. They labeled it “the great chorus of American consumer outrage, 2021 style.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, we all heard the stories of angry parents contesting masks in schools and airplane passengers having fits, but bad behavior is on the rise. Beyond issues related to pandemic protocol, contempt has expanded to minor inconveniences, like a product being out of stock. It’s not just the frequency of bad behavior that’s a problem but the intensity, often showing up as rage.

I read the article hours after having my own meltdown with a customer service rep and felt oddly comforted that I wasn’t the only one more prone to losing my composure these days. Many of my clients and friends have also noticed themselves struck with instant agitation more frequently. And yet they’ve also expressed ongoing languishing, the buzzword used to describe the lethargy and lack of motivation that many are feeling these days.

As confusing as it may seem, humans can feel contrasting feelings at the same time—anger and sadness or grief and hope side by side. And, in this case, we can toggle between rage and languishing. Given that we’re entering year three of the pandemic, it’s not surprising that our nervous system explodes when the slightest nuisance bumps up against our beleaguered morale.

Things that were once minor annoyances—getting kicked out of an account after too many failed login attempts or a package being delayed by supply chain problems—have become symbolic of our lack of control and uncertainty fatigue.

What we all need is more self-agency. And the best place to find it? Not by trying to control someone else or control our thoughts. It’s found in the present-moment reality of our body.

Scientifically, your physical body can help release your pent-up emotions. And mentally, it helps you feel a sense of will and control over your actions and consequences. Discharging movement—whether it be stretching, sighing, running, shaking, massaging, or weights, to name a few—is a way to release and manage those big feelings, past and present.

As a somatic psychologist, I’m trained in the ways science now understands that trauma can get stuck in our bodies. Sometimes no amount of analyzing—planning ahead, goal setting, or cognitive re-framing—can set it free. In fact, all that overthinking can cause people more anxiety. Emotions live in the body and can get lodged in the body if we don’t regularly have ways to move them through us safely.

Our body’s been keeping the score, as Bessel van der Kolk says, of a two-year pandemic experience, with fewer opportunities to discharge the angst in a healthy way (on top of the centuries’ worth of messages to repress and suppress our feelings, which doesn’t work). We are more cut off than ever from the natural ways that people soothe themselves: emotional expression with trusted others, whether it be dance, song, tears, or hugs.

Rest assured, you are not crazy if you, too, notice a rise in angry outbursts. But you are probably deprived of the outlets your body needs to regulate your over-taxed system. Too many group exercise classes and heartwarming group gatherings have been replaced with hyper-focusing on news headlines and failed pharmacy trips for back-ordered COVID tests.

With a consistent physical release to discharge accumulated stress, that next annoyance doesn’t have to turn into World War Three. Armed with a more regulated nervous system and a toolbox of ways in which movement is your medicine, a request to speak to the manager just might be a pleasant experience.


Lyall, S. ( 2022, January 1) A Nation on Hold Wants to Speak with a Manager. The New York Times.…