Here in Hong Kong, we’ve been battling uncertainty since May 2019 – first the protests, then the pandemic. This has taken a toll on the mental wellbeing of many people. We chat with DR QURATULAIN ZAIDI of MindNLife about the pressures on mental health and relationships, and strategies for managing anger.
Prolonged uncertainty causes heightened anxiety. It forces your survival brain to constantly update your world and make judgments about what’s safe and what isn’t. When certainty is questioned, your stress response goes into overdrive; a fight-or-flight reaction follows, prompting you to take action and get to safety.
Over the past 18 months or so, I’ve seen an increase in a variety of mental health and relationship challenges stemming from feelings of hypervigilance, increased stress, fear, anger, anxiety and loneliness; all of which can result in depression, PTSD and substance misuse.
Recognising our emotions
Unfortunately, the factors that are causing us so much emotional turmoil aren’t going away any time soon. So, instead of trying to bury or ignore our emotions, we need to be more honest about our rage and where it comes from Anger is a complicated emotion, and its expression can be profoundly impactful on the person feeling it, and the people around. It can have a devastating impact on relationships, too.
We often feel irritable when we’re fatigued, sick or under-resourced. Currently, many people are experiencing many of these stressors at once, be it from overdue bills, or juggling work and childcare. When we’re stretched thin, inadequacy grows and our feelings of control and confidence shrink. In this “vortex”, it’s easy to assume that eliminating stressors will fix the problem. But trying to control stress doesn’t make irritability and frustration disappear – especially when there’s a crisis as big as COVID-19. Psychologically, we know that irritability is often a sign that other emotions have been suppressed.
According to Paul Ekman’s research, anger is one of the six “basic emotions” identified in the Atlas of Emotions, along with disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. It’s felt by everyone at one point or another.
Accepting our emotions are valid
It’s also completely valid to feel this emotion. For example, people might express anger in order to mask emotions that cause them to feel vulnerable. Common emotions known to trigger anger are anxiety, shame, sadness, fear, frustration, guilt and disappointment. Anger has been described as an iceberg, hiding these deep primary emotions beneath it.
Learning to recognise anger as both a basic valid emotion and as a protector of uncomfortable emotions is a first step to understanding and then identifying the underlying feelings. Ask yourself these questions: “What is the most common primary emotion I experience before I get angry?” and “What am I protecting and why?”
Anger often comes if a goal is being blocked. It’s important to identify the perceived obstacle blocking the goal to gain better insight into your anger.
It’s hard to control anger when you’re “in the moment”. But you can learn to defuse and neutralise the emotion with these three steps.
- First, familiarise yourself with your anger – if you get angry, try to identify what your anger “precursors” were.
- When you feel your anger mounting, pay attention to the physical symptoms; if possible, identify your inner dialogue and underlying beliefs about the particular situation.
- Learn calming techniques (mindfulness and relaxation) and reframe your inner dialogue. Restructuring through Cognitive Behaviour Therapy can help you to let go of the inner chaos.
The next time you begin to feel angry, pause and think. Deep breathing has been proven scientifically to help decrease our heart rate; this can help to reengage the prefrontal cortex, which increases our ability to listen and think.
Once the heart rate is lowered, ask yourself, “What am I really feeling?” Explore the feeling of sadness, shame, jealousy or fear that your anger is covering. Think about what outcome you want from the situation and the best way to achieve it.
Also, learn to express your needs assertively rather than aggressively, and recognise that, while aggressive anger may get you the results you want in the short term, it is detrimental in many other ways.
Anger and relationships
Conflict vs emotional distance
Relationship conflict is natural and it has functional, positive aspects. For example, it helps us learn how to better love and understand our partners, deal with change, and renew the friendship and connection over time.
Research shows that in successful long-term relationships, partners try to manage rather than eliminate conflict. Totally conflict-free relationships aren’t necessarily healthy relationships. Also, conflict avoidant couples aren’t necessarily the strongest, most emotionally stable couples. By avoiding conflict, they can become emotionally distant and fail to express what they need from one another and the relationship. Eventually, this can result in built-up resentment and dissatisfaction, which in turn can lead to people looking outside the relationship for their emotional needs to be met. Relationships are destroyed because of emotional distance not conflict.
Taking a step back
One of the most difficult things when anger is directed at us by a loved one is not to personalise it and become defensive. When feeling attacked, our natural instinct is to fight back and defend the personal perceived attack. It’s hard not to personalise such an attack. However, it’s helpful to take a step back instead of reacting. Create a response to your partner’s feelings by managing your own emotional arousal, and try to be curious and understanding of where the anger might be coming from.
It’s never helpful to say “calm down” or “you’re overreacting”; such statements are dismissive of your partner’s feelings and imply that their feelings don’t matter or are unacceptable.We can’t try to hide or bury our emotions – especially anger and frustration. Instead, we need to speak up when we feel sad, irritated or frightened – particularly in a time of uncertainty such as that brought on by the COVID-19 crisis. It’s this type of emotional exercise that can make irritability shrink. Not only that, but when we share what we need, we’re in a better position to validate not only our own feelings, but the feelings of our loved ones, too.
Open and honest communication
On the flipside, if your childhood experience was one where the expression of anger was not allowed, then it can be paralysing and scary for you, too. Open and honest communication with your partner about what anger means to you can lead to better understanding and managing these conflicts better in the relationship. Try not to take responsibility and solve your partner’s anger for them just because their anger scares you. Communicate this clearly and instead try to create a dialogue that creates a deeper understanding and validation for you both.
Dr Zaidi is a British-registered clinical psychologist who works with individuals, couples and families in her private practice in Central, and as a mental health consultant for a number of NGOs and international corporations.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.