A couple reached out to me, saying an argument with their 14-year-old son had made them realise they needed therapy. The husband said: “Our son has a sullen face all day long and responds to us rudely every time we try talking to him. On Sunday, when we sat down as a family to talk about it, he told us that since the lockdown we get irritated about the smallest things with him, and with each other. He felt we are unhappy and in a constant state of anger, which he feels impacts the entire home environment. He was crying.”
The wife added: “We were shattered to hear this but my husband and I know our anger has exponentially increased during the pandemic. We kept saying it’s stress, burnout, and refused to acknowledge our anger. Now we realise it and feel extremely guilty as parents. We want to work towards reducing our anger.”
Since March 2020, I have seen a significant increase in the number of people reaching out for therapy for anger and frustration, whether it’s children, young adults or senior citizens. I have heard so many parents say they have experienced their worst parenting moments during the pandemic. Both men and women feel ashamed while sharing this and feel their capacity to control/reduce their overreactions has been compromised.
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Marc Brackett, in his book Permission To Feel: Unlocking The Power Of Emotions To Help Our Kids, Ourselves And Our Society Thrive, says: “If the person experienced or witnessed an injustice—something unfair happened, then it’s anger. If the person is trying to do something but cannot—a blocked goal, then it’s frustration.” During the pandemic, each one of us has experienced this feeling of injustice in various forms, both directly and vicariously. A friend’s nine-year-old daughter told me: “How is it fair that I haven’t gotten to go to my ballet class or school for more than a year? I am very angry with everyone.”
Most people feel life has been reduced to the four walls of the house. They feel claustrophobic; spaces like a workout class, gym or movie theatres, which provided a chance for recreation and mood regulation, no longer seem to exist. Lack of privacy and downtime has exacerbated this feeling of anger. I am also hearing that work-life boundaries have blurred, with some disillusioned about the treatment from their organisations. Then there is feeling of anger at a systemic level. For a lot of people, anger is showing up in the form of low frustration tolerance, overreaction to innocuous situations, over-sensitivity, outbursts, emotionally abusive behaviour or maltreatment in relation to children. Whether in individual work or at workshops, I often hear people ask, “How can I manage my anger, I seem to be reacting to things that are really trivial?”
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A good starting point is to recognise what it’s like when you are beginning to get angry: in your body and in your thoughts. Do emotions that lie beneath possibly trigger it? Anger is sometimes not our primary emotion; it may be a surface emotion. Disappointment, hurt, grief, anxiety, helplessness, sadness, feeling overwhelmed, tiredness and shame could be some of the emotional states underlying anger. Recognising these states and addressing them is important.
Within families specifically, it’s important to open larger conversations about our beliefs, perceptions, expectations, intent, and the impact of expression of anger, so we can work towards an emotionally safe environment at home. Else, it can lead to resentment.
Most importantly, learn to respond when you have calmed down, you don’t need to respond immediately to an email, a family member or your partner. As the existential psychiatrist Irving Yalom says, “Strike when the iron is cold.”
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.