sychologist Susan David writes about the notion that emotions are neither good or bad, they are simply indicators of an underlying problem. For David, emotions signpost—or alert us—when our values are being questioned or our needs aren’t being met. By seeking to understand the underlying reason we are feeling an emotion, we are better able to manage them.
When anger is the emotion
Caring for our community has been our superpower throughout the pandemic. In this moment, however, our capacity for empathy is being challenged. As a clinician, it can be hard to muster empathy when you get called in on your day off to care for unvaccinated patients who got sick at a concert. But getting wrapped up in frustration results in anger that isn’t productive.
1. Name the emotion
When we label or name the emotion—“I feel angry” or “I feel frustrated”—we begin to reduce the feeling’s grip on us. Simply recognizing the feeling and its source is a great first step, even though it might not feel like it at the time. Identifying the underlying feeling leading to anger can also be helpful. Often fear leads to anger. At the root of fear can be loss of control and lack of predictability.
Sometimes our true anger is really rooted in something unrelated. For example, when I am upset about a conversation at work, and I take it out on a person in the grocery store. Recognizing the source of your anger can prevent us from taking out the anger on an undeserving coworker, family member, or friend.
2. Don’t bottle it up
When we feel anger, it is usually better to address it in the moment than try to avoid or compartmentalize it. Pushing aside the rage or bottling it, is associated with high levels of depression, anxiety, inability to problem-solve, and deterioration of relationships.
We have to learn healthy ways to manage our anger. Acknowledging the underlying emotion or the true target of anger are both ways to help move through the stress of the event. Other productive ways to manage the stress of an event include physical activity, connecting with your support system, crying, laughter, and breathing.
3. Connect with the person, not the problem
Try stepping back to consider their unique circumstances. Think about their story.
As a primary care physician, I have the opportunity to talk to many people before they get sick. Not a clinic day goes by that I don’t encounter someone who is still on the fence about getting vaccinated. What I have found, time and time again, is that these individuals are trying—really trying—to make the best decision with the information, knowledge and lived experience that they have.
One way to engage with patients in a more empathic way is to simply use the prompt “help me understand.” For instance, a useful question could be, “Help me understand what is your biggest concern about the vaccine?”
It’s easy to lose sight of an individual’s humanity when we’re angry. It’s important to remember that we are all craving safety, security, and connection. The better we understand this, the more effective we will be as health professionals and team leaders.
Psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl described our opportunity, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lives our growth and freedom.”
4. Channel the anger into positive action
When we feel rage at unvaccinated people, that rage is telling us something. It is a signpost that our values as clinicians—prevention of sickness and preservation of life—are being challenged. The suffering of unvaccinated Covid patients feels like a Never Event—it’s unnecessary. Worse, this unnecessary suffering has a cascading effect on all aspects of our lives.
Anger might feel dangerous, but growing research indicates that anger is foundational to moral courage. It is about how you use the anger. Anger can be destructive when we let it take over, when we don’t examine it and let it come out in unhelpful ways or directed at bystanders. When anger can be named, examined for its source, it can be focused toward meaningful change on behalf of yourself and others. It’s okay to feel angry sometimes. That anger might help you speak out and stand up when its most important.