Fights on airplanes and in schools, road rage and violent crimes are all on the rise. People seem to be losing patience with each other, whether the disagreement is over politics, sports teams, or everyday life. As a nation and as individuals, we are experiencing helpless outrage at the smallest of slights – both real and perceived. I’m sure you’ve experienced it yourself. I certainly have, and this sense of helpless outrage concerns me, especially as we head into the hectic holiday season.
The pandemic put everyone on edge. For nearly three years, we’ve lived in a state of constant hypervigilance – unconsciously evaluating every stranger, and even some friends, as a potential threat of infection. We went through months focused on the question – “is it safe?” Is it safe to go shopping? Is it safe to go without a mask? Is it safe to eat at a restaurant? Even the smallest tasks seemed to threaten life or death consequences, and the stress continues to take a profound toll.
Fight, flight, or freeze
Our bodies are tuned to respond immediately to a threat. In fact, anxiety and fear often manifest as anger. With Fight, flight, or freeze – your body prepares to meet the threat by either fighting it, fleeing from it, or staying stuck still in the hopes of passing unnoticed. Our sympathetic nervous system flushes the body with adrenaline, your muscles tense and your responses become almost instinctual, prompted by a portion of our brain called the amygdala. Then, just as quickly, our parasympathetic nervous system works to calm the body and reduce heart rate – or homeostasis – once the perceived threat has ended.
Except coronavirus and the ensuing societal changes persist. We are living in a constant battle between our sympathetic nervous system – the fight, flight, or freeze response – and the parasympathetic system – our body’s instinct to keep us calm. Unfortunately, this type of internal chaos can manifest as rage. As a result, the average, well-meaning individual who doesn’t typically have anger issues is more irrational, leading to an increase in explosive and reactionary behavior.
Taking Ownership of Your Response
So how do we bounce back from the chaos? Typically, we would lean on our resilience – the ability to cope with stress. But many people have exhausted the reserves of their resilience. Just like exercise, we must work to keep resilience in shape. Without resilience we are much more likely to overreact or keep obsessing about a situation, which increases agitation.
There are many ways to build up resilience. One of the ways we boost resilience is by actively working to reduce hypervigilance in our interactions and instead give people the benefit of the doubt. If we are positive and open minded, we may experience calmer interactions. If we find ourselves becoming hostile, it’s important to take a deep breath and evaluate why we are reacting this way and what we can do differently next time.
How to feel better in the time of helpless outrage
As I write this post, the nation is marching full speed ahead to a post-pandemic world – one where COVID-19 will remain a part of our lives. However, most people have not yet really dealt with the rollercoaster of feelings and experiences brought on by the pandemic. It’s critically important to acknowledge what we’ve been through and understand how constant hypervigilance can result in emotional disturbance and behavior changes. If we don’t address our own healthy and appropriate anxiety, frustration, and anger, it will continue to leak into our interactions with others. I find the following tools very helpful:
- Practice mindfulness: Pay attention to this moment, not the five moments before or after: This one, and then do it again and again without judgment. Take time to meditate for a few minutes at least once a day.
- Remember to breathe: Taking deep belly breaths throughout the day has a calming effect that counters the instinctive response of fight, flight or freeze.
- Be compassionate: Give yourself and those you interact with the gift of kindness and consideration. Others may be struggling, just like you.
- Remain open-minded: Believe it or not, keeping an open mind can help you calmly navigate and shape your response to many complicated situations.
- Take small steps every day to build up your resilience: Put yourself in new situations to help you become more flexible and tolerant.
- Create strong boundaries: You can’t control other people but putting boundaries in place limits your exposure to relationships or situations that feel toxic.
Practice digital well-being: Just as we set boundaries with people, we must also limit social media and news consumption. In fact, there are mounting concerns the algorithms behind social media platforms are designed to elicit reactions like fear and anger, because they provoke a response and increase “engagement” on the platform that can be monetized via advertising. Please note that this is separate from virtual relationships and 12-step groups that can be beneficial when there is a significant connection between the participants.
- Avoid the use of alcohol, substances, or other addictive behaviors: Instead of a glass of wine, find new and healthy ways to reduce stress and boost your mood.
- Ask for help: If you’re struggling, investigate online and in-person support groups and counseling to develop a resilience toolbox and to move forward in a positive way.
As a reminder, we can only take ownership of our own behavior; we cannot control the reactions of others. As we move into the new year, there may be some situations or relationships you need to step back from. The goal should be to avoid depleting interactions in favor of nurturing ones. I want to empower you to take an active role in creating a sense of peace and well-being. After all, the counter to helpless outrage is to embrace your power for positive change.
By Erin Goodhart, LPC, CAADC, CMAT, CSAT, ACRPS, CCS, CPT Provider