The coronavirus pandemic has been one big emotional rollercoaster. From the anxiety of the first few weeks of lockdown to the numbness of the last couple of months, my emotions have changed with every news update, government announcement and rule revision.
This week, the announcement of the tier system update saw me lose my head. I found myself frustrated with small things, sending voice notes to my friends ranting about seemingly minor things. I was experiencing one overbearing emotion: anger. Not only am I angry about the glaring failures (I’m looking at you, test and trace) and the constant U-turns, but I’m angry about the gaslighting and attempts to pass the blame onto the public.
Of course, I know the government was not going to get this 100% right, and I understand that mistakes were inevitably going to be made at some point. But as discussions about a second lockdown begin to dominate the news agenda, I can’t help but feel like we’ve been let down – that the systems which should be working by this point in the pandemic aren’t there to keep us safe.
I’m definitely not the only one who feels like this. After so long spent dealing with the impact of coronavirus on our lives, many of us have reached a point of exasperation that things keep going wrong.
However, while we shouldn’t feel bad for feeling this way – after all, we’ve certainly got our reasons – it’s important that we don’t let our frustration take its toll on our mental health, especially when so many of us are already struggling right now.
“Emotions in themselves aren’t inherently good or bad, rather it’s how we process and respond to these feelings that matters,” explains Dr Meg Arroll, psychologist on behalf of Healthspan.
“Anger, for example, can be quite a powerful driver of action and subsequently change when managed and channelled into something productive. The problem with any emotional response is when it leads to negative and repetitive thoughts, gives us a short fuse, results in patterns that keep us stuck or, even worse, drives health-limiting behaviours such as emotional eating or substance misuse.”
She continues: “A new survey commission by Healthspan of 2,000 UK residents found that 70% of respondents exercise or go for a walk to ease some of the difficult emotions and frustrations that recent events have triggered, whereas 72% watch a movie, 63% listen to music and 60% read. These are all examples of adaptive coping mechanisms, which support mental health in the face of events outside of our control.”
Instead of letting our anger and frustration at the current situation take complete control of our headspace, these “adaptive” coping mechanisms can help to ease some of the intensity. In turn, this helps us to avoid turning to “maladaptive” coping mechanisms – such as drinking excessive amounts of alcohol or engaging in risk-taking behaviours – which tend to make things worse in the long run.
Of course, while easing our emotions in the short term might help us to deal with the discomfort of our anger and frustration, in the long run, those emotions are still likely to bubble up time and time again, especially because the current situation isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. So what can we do to come to terms with how we’re feeling?
Dr Arroll explains: “Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is my go-to in situations where anger and frustration seem to be bubbling up or overwhelming – this approach is all about accepting what you can’t control (e.g. the problems with the test and trace system) while at the same time committing to the things you do have influence over (e.g. what you do when you feel this frustration.
“By zooming back into our circle of influence, it’s possible to limit the damaging effects of rumination (aka thinking about or obsessing over the source of your anger) which is often a consequence of low perceived control.”
She continues: “Rumination is known to result in high levels of anxiety and depression, so if you feel your mind racing with anger, halt the thought pattern by imagining a big red STOP sign. Then shift your attention and focus back in on those adaptive coping tactics.”
On top of focusing on the things you can control, another good way to process some of the anger you’re feeling might be to talk things through with someone you’re close with. But, warns Dr Arroll, it’s important to not get carried away.
“Although it is, of course, good to talk things through, be mindful of constant venting if it doesn’t help you find a solution – research has shown that unrestrained fault-finding not only affects mental wellbeing, but it can also quickly lead to fewer friends who may tire of your diatribes.
“Try to have a laugh instead – it’s impossible to feel angry when you’re laughing. Use whatever works for you – I watch silly animal clips as it’s quick, easy and just enough to cause a giggle. There’s even some evidence that watching cat clips improves our sense of wellbeing.”
Although it may feel slightly trivial to sit back and watch a cat video when the source of your frustration is so serious, it’s OK to put yourself first.
Giving ourselves permission to switch off from the coronavirus news-cycle and instead going for a walk or enjoying some light-hearted relief isn’t always easy, but it’s clear that doing so is incredibly important for our mental and emotional health.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website or see the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here.
For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email email@example.com.