Lydia Hartland-Rowe is a Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and Portfolio Manager for Psychological Therapies for the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust. Here Lydia discusses something we are recognising about where we are in relation to the pandemic and in the face of what is coming, an increased tendency towards irritation and anger, or as the podcast say, grumpiness. Feeling that way at times, at the moment, makes sense and while it might at moments make things difficult, grumpiness is known to be something that shifts and lifts and that we may need to make space for in ourselves and others at the moment.
Wellbeing Quiz Profile: #MoreIrritable
One of the complicated things about the current and ongoing situation created by the global pandemic, and maybe especially at the moment, is that it both creates new strains and challenges for us, but also may subtly magnify strains and challenges that were there already. And equally, while some of our responses to what has been and is happening may be new, for the most part they will connect to who we are already and our particular ways of processing and responding to things. Some responses to a potentially traumatising experience may seem more obvious and understandable; sadness, shock, tiredness. But what do we do if we are someone, or work closely with someone, whose particular way of responding to the challenges posed by the pandemic is to be more irritable, grumpier, more prone to anger? It’s hard enough at the best of times to remember that when somebody is angry or bad-tempered it may be that there is an underlying anxiety, fear or sadness, but just at the moment it may be even more difficult when there is so much strain around for so many, and where, if remote working is part of the mix, it’s harder to read some cues that might help.
As with so much that can happen to us at a time when there is so much stimulus to take in, and much of it potentially very unsettling, one of the most important things to be able to do is to notice what you are feeling. Just that. It is easy to settle into being fed up and grumpy, and in a modern NHS or social care setting to find lots of reasons to explain it that are outside yourself, but it may be very helpful just to pause, and notice if you are more short-fused than usual, or that anger is harder to step away from. And at that moment to ask yourself whether it’s possible that your state of mind might be in some way related to the extreme situation that is unfolding, even if you are not aware of being specifically angry about that. This isn’t a pass to behaving unkindly to colleagues, or to allowing yourself to get really filled up with anger, but it is a way of just reminding yourself of the context, and of the need for compassion. There can sometimes be a bit of a luxury in getting filled with righteous irritation, but the cost to working relationships can be high, so taking that moment to see whether there might be something happening beyond the immediate apparent cause of your anger can be an important break in the cycle.
There are of course practical things you can do. Taking a few minutes out, a walk, a conversation with a colleague, or if you need something more focussed, a breathing exercise or calming technique. But of course, sometimes when we feel filled up with something, it’s hard to do what we know would be helpful or good for us, and so it might also be that one of the most helpful things we can do is after the fact; some recognition of the strain we are under, and some leeway in the expectations we have of ourselves – so basically, it won’t help to beat yourself up if your usual calm manner isn’t sustainable, and the important thing is to pause and go forward.
Of course, the thing about grumpiness rather than more obvious distress, is that it can have an impact on how we feel about each other; the email that gets sent too quickly, the impatient tone that we wouldn’t normally have. So while it is still reasonable and important to expect basic standards of courtesy between colleagues, it may also be helpful to use a little imagination if someone is less patient than usual, more prickly. Ideally, this won’t just mean suffering in silence and sympathy but might mean an opportunity to check in with each other, but sometimes that won’t be possible or the right space, and then it might be enough just to pause before getting too stuck in a view about someone to think about where their irritation is coming from, and whether some of it, even if it doesn’t feel justified, is just coming from the wider situation.
I think it can be particularly hard, if you are the person feeling angry, if you aren’t aware of having had an experience over the past 6 months that has been obviously a source of upheaval, so you haven’t been ill, haven’t been working in an acute context, haven’t lost anyone close or had your livelihood threatened – and yet you are still stirred up in this way. But you are also a member of a society that has and is going through experiences collectively that are a source of sadness, powerlessness and fear. So it may well be that at moments, some of this gets into you, in an ordinary way but still in a way that can feel really uncomfortable unless you find a way to understand and forgive it, in yourself and others.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t things to be angry about, to claim justice for, and to raise with your organisations if they need challenging – and we have seen that in relation to the inequities highlighted by Covid-19 as well as by the issues re-exposed through Black Lives Matter. But taking the time to sift through anger that can be useful and creative in making change where it’s needed, and anger that might get in the way of good working relationships and your own ease of mind is really important at the moment, and is likely to continue to be for the foreseeable future.