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Pandemic rage: It's time to seek help when not getting that last chicken wing makes you throw a chair

SINGAPORE — Poor customer service, traffic hold-ups, road rage, people who cut queues, long waiting times for takeaways or deliveries, booking and wedding cancellations, postponement of events, as well as constant changes of and confusion over Covid-19 regulations.

Pandemic rage: It's time to seek help when not getting that last chicken wing makes you throw a chair
  • There have been more incidents of anger outbursts against front-line workers and between strangers during the Covid-19 pandemic
  • Mental health professionals said the prolonged stress of the pandemic, a sense of helplessness and injustice may be contributing factors
  • Increased social media use may also amplify outrage and anger
  • If one has intermittent explosive disorder, it is severe and would require urgent professional attention
  • Mental health experts gave advice on how front-line workers can keep calm and manage heated situations

SINGAPORE — Poor customer service, traffic hold-ups, road rage, people who cut queues, long waiting times for takeaways or deliveries, booking and wedding cancellations, postponement of events, as well as constant changes of and confusion over Covid-19 regulations.

There are plenty of situations and experiences to get one riled up and frustrated while going about daily living during the pandemic.

And when boundaries are crossed, tempers flare. 

Anger is a natural emotion, but the real trouble starts when rage takes over and it goes out of control, hurting the feelings of others and causing harm along the way because of what one says or do.

In the past two years, reports of quarrels and aggressive behaviour have become more commonplace, such as the case of a 61-year-old male driver who threatened to run down a security officer outside Red Swastika School last month.

There have also been reports of healthcare workers and service workers being at the receiving end of anger outbursts, not to mention the countless cases of people verbally abusing or assaulting public servants.

Mental health professionals who spoke to TODAY are not surprised to hear of such explosive incidents, given the stress of the prolonged pandemic.

A sense of helplessness, feelings of a lack of control, the frequent airing of polarising viewpoints on social media and poor anger management skills are some reasons for poorly controlled anger, they said. 

Dr Marcus Tan, a consultant psychiatrist at Nobel Psychological Wellness Clinic (a member of Healthway Medical Group), is among the healthcare professionals who have seen more people seeking help to control their temper.

This is especially when their anger gets them into trouble at work or affects their relationships.

People who have difficulty controlling anger and displaying increased irritability are commonly seen in his practice even before the pandemic.

However, since 2020, Dr Tan has seen a 5 per cent to 10 per cent rise in the number of people each month who seek help specifically to manage their temper.

The entire experience of the pandemic makes us constantly feel that our existence, lifestyle and sense of well-being are being threatened. It may not take a lot to trigger someone and make them feel a sense of being threatened, which leads to anger.
Ms Sophia Goh, principal counsellor and psychotherapist at Sofia Wellness Clinic

Ms Sophia Goh, principal counsellor and psychotherapist at Sofia Wellness Clinic, explained that anger is an emotional response that occurs when there is a perceived sense of injustice or threat.

“In the past two years, the entire experience of the pandemic makes us constantly feel that our existence, lifestyle and sense of well-being are being threatened. It may not take a lot to trigger someone and make them feel a sense of being threatened, which leads to anger.

“I think that could have contributed to many of such cases (of hostile behaviour) occurring,” Ms Goh said.

Dr Tan said that most people would have faced changes in their lives at some point during the Covid-19 crisis.

“I think most of us can agree that the pandemic has gone on for far too long and we are tired of it. With restrictions in activities, travel and work-from-home arrangements, some people — especially those living in crowded households with little personal space — may find it challenging to find a suitable outlet to ventilate their pent-up feelings,” he added.

Ms Goh, who now sees an average of two cases of anger management problems a month, believes that many anger outbursts occur unintentionally and are not necessarily a reflection of “bad” character.

“If you put someone under immense pressure, which might be the situation for those individuals… it is normal for the person to crack.

“But from a bystander’s view, it’s very easy to see that action as a representation of the person’s character or personality, as compared to seeing it as an outcome of the external environment or other factors,” she said.

“My guess is that the incidents came from a sense that nothing is really going well (in their lives). So this very small thing, whether it is about getting their way in a situation, it may be a subconscious way to get back a little bit of control in their lives.”

STRESSED OUT AND IRRITABLE

Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness, said that Singapore is a fast-paced society with an over-emphasis on efficiency.

“With Singaporeans not only always being on the go but rushing all the time, impatience leading to anger issues and road rage is very commonplace. When stressed out, irritability is amplified,” he said.

The first thing many people tend to do during conflicts is to pull out their smartphones to start recording… But this invariably agitates the other side and aggravates the situation with people ‘attacking’ one another with video recordings.
Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness

From the patients he sees in his clinic, Dr Lim has observed that irritability and anger towards spouses, partners and family members seemed to have gone up in the past two years. Most of those seeking help are in their 30s to 40s, and are usually stressed out because they are overworking and cannot cope.

Certain groups of people are at a higher risk of having anger management issues.

Ms Goh said that lack of positive role models during a person’s younger years may also affect how one responds to stressful situations.

Anger management issues are also often a symptom of underlying mental illness such as depression and anxiety disorders, or personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder, Dr Lim said.

“Anger often leads to a vicious circle of anger followed by regret and feelings of guilt, further negative and stressful feelings, and even more festering anger,” he added.

“It is important to assess and treat any underlying mental illnesses. Even if not related to mental illnesses and just due to transient stress, anger can affect one’s functionality, rationality and result in rash decision making.”

Uncontrolled anger can also have a negative impact on health, sleep and blood pressure.

SOCIAL MEDIA RAGE

With social media amplifying rage incidents and being a hotbed for polarising viewpoints and scrutiny, people who use social media more frequently may experience more angst.

For example, Dr Lim pointed out that the trend of going online to seek “social justice” could worsen conflicts.

“The first thing many people tend to do during conflicts is to pull out their smartphones to start recording, perhaps to protect themselves and seek redress later.

“But this invariably agitates the other side and aggravates the situation with people ‘attacking’ one another with video recordings.”

Commuters on an MRT train looking at their mobile phones. Social media amplifies rage incidents and people who use social media more frequently may experience more angst, a psychiatrist said.

Dr Tan also pointed out that bad news tends to attract more attention than good news.

“Our curiosity tends to be piqued more when an individual is shown or exposed to be at his or her worst behaviour, compared to when we hear of people doing good deeds.

“Furthermore, the proliferation of social media platforms and smartphones with video recording capabilities allow such incidents to be documented and shared more easily.”

A new study by Yale University in the United States, published in August last year in the journal Science Advances, explains how online networks encourage people to express more moral outrage over time.

After analysing more than 12 million tweets and assessing the behaviour of social media users, the researchers found that expressing outrage online typically garners more “likes” than other interactions.

This could spur people to lash out more when upset because users learn that such expressions get rewarded with increased likes and re-tweets.

Dr Lim has also observed greater polarisation in beliefs and views in the past two years, driven by increased social media use.

“Using infection control measures as an example, some trust science and believe in these measures while some do not. When everyone holds their own beliefs and are not willing to compromise, conflicts will arise,” he said.

“People are also more likely to express their views publicly these days. But we have yet evolved as a society to accept different viewpoints and agree to disagree.” 

WHEN IS ANGER A PROBLEM?

When expressed appropriately, anger is not a problem. However, it becomes problematic when a person experiences it too frequently or cannot control it.

Ms Goh of Sofia Wellness Clinic said that there are various “unhealthy” ways in which people may express anger. People with chronic anger tend to get angry easily, overreact frequently to situations and find it hard to control their temper.

For example, they may take offence easily with small things, which leads to people around them feeling like they are walking on eggshells.

It is important to assess and treat any underlying mental illnesses. Even if not related to mental illnesses and just due to transient stress, anger can affect one’s functionality, rationality and result in rash decision making.
Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness

There are also those with repressed anger, such that they hurt themselves instead of others.

Ms Goh added that intermittent explosive disorder is the most severe type of anger management problem. It would require more urgent attention, as it may result in harm to others or destruction of property.

Intermittent explosive disorder occurs when the person experiences frequent episodes of aggressive behaviour that is disproportion to the situation.

“For example, like not having the last chicken wing at the stall, and then experiencing anger that is out of proportion by hitting furniture, etc,” Ms Goh said.

“When it happens, it’s not premeditated. The anger episode is out of control and there’s destruction to property or people. If it happens frequently, the person would require professional help early.”

WHAT TO DO WHEN TEMPERS FRAY

It is easy to let emotions run high when nothing seems to be going well or when one is confronted by a hostile individual.

As a healthcare professional, Dr Lim has been at the receiving end of anger outbursts. He recalled a recent upsetting incident at work that made him see red and talked about how he handled it, though he did not want to go into what sparked the outburst.

“As frontline staff, we often encounter individuals who may be upset or angry. When the person shouted at me, there was an urge to shout back and argue. I also noticed that my face was feeling flushed and I was having palpitations,” he recalled.

However, Dr Lim’s professional training kicked in and he defrayed the situation with a few strategies.

After asking the person to take a seat, he also sat down to avoid any posture that may be perceived as an aggressive stance.

Dr Lim kept quiet and calmed himself down by taking gentle breaths while allowing the other party to continue ventilating.

“After half a minute to a minute of calming down, I listened to the person’s complaints and unhappiness, acknowledging areas of his concerns. I offered some means of making the situation better but was rejected,” he said.

“Nevertheless, the other person calmed down substantially. I then brought his attention away from the triggering issue to other matters at hand.

“The trick is not to let our own ego get in the way. If we are wrong, have the humility and courage to apologise.”

How to ease tension and defuse an argument before it turns ugly

Mental health professionals rounded up some simple strategies, which may be helpful for front-line staff members handling overly emotional individuals or overheated situations.

1. Remove yourself from the situation

Being mindful of your emotion is key. This will help you know when you are at the tipping point.

“In the heat of the moment, one will likely act or speak in a manner that one will regret later. So once you feel your anger surging, politely excuse yourself and walk away to recompose your thoughts,” Dr Marcus Tan of Nobel Psychological Wellness Clinic said.

“Much as it can be tempting to let out the frustration there and then, we may be dissuaded from doing so by remembering the amount of damage control that may need to be done after that or how unbridled anger places us at a disadvantage,” he said.

Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness, said that front-line workers handling overly emotional individuals should bear in mind that safety always come first.

“If you do not feel safe with an angry individual, leave immediately,” he said.

Getting a colleague to take over may also help, especially when you are having trouble coping with your own emotions.

2. Disarm the angry person

When de-escalating a situation, it is important to use a calm and neutral tone. To sound neutral, Dr Lim suggested speaking in a lower pitch, lowering the volume and at a slower tempo.

“Try to be non-judgemental and empathetic, and try first to listen to the person’s difficulties,” he said.

Ms Goh, principal counsellor and psychotherapist at Sofia Wellness Clinic, suggested that one disarming technique is to find some way to agree with what the person is saying.

Although it can be hard, Dr Tan advised front-line workers at the receiving end of an anger outburst to stay calm and not appear reactive or overly defensive while under fire.

This is because coming across as defensive can further fan negative emotions for both parties.

“In the midst of raised voices and heightened emotions, try to tune in to what the person is trying to convey. As far as we can, we should try not to take what is said personally or to heart,” Dr Tan added.

He views an anger outburst as an individual’s attempt to communicate a sense of helplessness or loss of control.

“These moments, while distressing to us, can at times turn out to be opportunities to forge rapport.”

3. Look for a win-win solution

Bear in mind that you cannot reason with a person who is unreasonable at that moment because the person may have lost all rationality due to anger, Dr Lim said.

“Do not try to win the battle or argument but end up losing the ‘war’. It is hard for someone to keep being angry with you if your mindset is one where you are trying your best to be of help to him or her.

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anger Covid-19 social media mental health pandemic rage road rage verbal abuse assault

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