Are we getting angrier and what can we do about it?

There have been reports recently of people expressing anger towards staff who work in the NHS, in supermarkets and in the hospitality trade. Why do people get angry with those who are trying to help them?

These irritable people are probably stressed themselves and may be complaining at systems or the situations and not necessarily the actual individuals who are trying to help. NHS workers were under enormous stress pre Covid and the pandemic has exacerbated their worries. The retail and hospitality trades are struggling to recruit an adequate workforce. These issues all place extra pressure on the people who work within these environments. The people who are visiting hospital are also possibly experiencing pressure and often increased anxiety because of huge waiting lists.

The population generally has raised cortisol levels and are continually on high alert because of the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic situation, which is having a knock-on influence upon jobs as the economy in some sectors and areas stutters back into what most hope is recovery.

So, what causes anger? Anger is a primeval protective reaction, connected to the survival drive, triggered when humans become afraid. Anger is not just external rage, shouting, throwing, and punching. Internal and often hidden irritability and frustration is widespread within people troubled with psychological tension. If we are frightened, we will freeze, flight or fight (Cannon W B 1915). Most people will feel all these three things when really pressured, but some have an automatic pilot urged on by their Amygdala (a ‘quick reaction’ part of the brain) to get irritable and angry.

Anger is predominately associated with fear, but as humans have evolved, we have developed an injustice gene and so if we witness or are involved in an injustice, some of us can react by becoming angry. Even before the pandemic I had read articles and academic studies suggesting that as a society we were becoming angrier or less tolerant and that a mixture of political events and the ever-encroaching social media were the catalysts for this.

Our evolution has developed very quickly, and it is speeding up at a dizzying rate.

- 250,000 years ago, humans became a distinct species.

- 100,000 years ago, we started moving out of east Africa. 

- About 70,000 years ago we started using languages.

- 10-12,000 years ago, we started farming and keeping livestock.

- Kingdoms and empires started 4-5,000 years ago.

- 2,500 years ago, money appeared, and structured religions emerged.

We have also had the scientific revolution around 500 years ago followed by the industrial revolution around 300 years ago, where we started to move away from the country and become city dwellers (Harari, YN 2014). Lately we have had several social, political and economic revolutions and very recently we have had the technological revolution… cars, electricity, telephones, radio, TV, space travel. Extremely recently the digital age with smart phones, the internet and social media has completely changed the way we communicate and operate as a world. Our environment has altered radically, but could we as humans have changed so much, so quickly? Can we keep up?

It's probably logical to assume we will frequently react to issues in a stressed manner, especially presently when all humans are threatened by a deadly virus, although hopefully that threat is gradually abating. Social media and search engines mean we can see bad news and injustices all over the world, get sucked in by false news or we are exposed to depressing real news, whereas before social media and the internet these things were not so evident.

Imagine if you were born in 1550 and lived in a small village in Norfolk or Suffolk, the chances are that you’d be an agricultural labourer, the chances are you would know what was happening in your village and you would know everyone who lived there. You might go to the market town (Reepham, Hadleigh or similar) on holidays and high days and go to Norwich or Ipswich on extremely rare occasions. Going to London probably wouldn’t happen and unless there was a war you would not go abroad. Furthermore, it’s unlikely you would be able to read so your knowledge would be limited, and your world would be small and your lifestyle certain.

Perpetual change and distorted aspirations, which modern media platforms can bring, often places irrational or irrelevant burdens on people and this stress is increasing annually. Generally, people today are less community minded and more independent, and we are more inclined to strive for personal growth and development, although all the stats say acts of altruism make us feel good. If we all try and be gentler with each other and try and dig out some compassion and empathy I feel all our lives would become less stressful; we would be less angry.

When communicating try to slow down your thought process, consider what you are going to say extremely carefully and be very considerate.

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