August 31

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Are You Feeling Pangry* Now? (*=Pandemic-Angry)

Pangriness: the state of being irrationally angry and/or more irritable due to the extended stress of being in a pandemic.

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(Yellowed sections are the parts previous readers had highlighted on Medium.)

When I was a teenager, our teacher excitedly introduced us to the most famous opening sentence of a German novel.

It goes like this: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

On Bastille Day this year, I could suddenly sympathize with Mr. Samsa’s plight, as described in Franz Kafka’s work The Metamorphosis.

What happened is that I woke up to the realization that I had been turned into a prickly porcupine overnight.

I didn’t just feel like I had gotten up on the wrong side of the bed.

It’s like I woke up on the wrong side of the Atlantic ocean. (Given the American pandemic response, this is probably an accurate reflection of reality.)

I don’t recall ever having been in such a foul mood for no apparent reason.

After noticing that my levels of grumpiness were off the chart, I took action. And yet, even after meditating for 20 minutes and journaling, my prickliness still rivaled that of a cactus. (A cactus I would have, no doubt, managed to get into a fight with.)

I wasn’t the only one who noticed that I had been turned into a porcupine. While tending to the emotional claw marks my transfiguration had left on him, my beloved husband remarked:

“You know, it’s like when people are hangry… hungry and angry. Perhaps you’re just Coronavirus-angry. Is that a thing? Cangry?”

I stopped my tirades for long enough to remark that it should probably be called “pangry” (for “pandemic-angry) instead.

My husband smartly avoided me for most of that day.

(It’s probably just a coincidence that that day was not only Bastille Day but also a Tuesday which is associated with Mars — the Roman god of war.)

Towards a coherent understanding of pandemic-angriness (pangriness)

When I was back to my Dr. Jekyll self, I decided to investigate the idea my husband had half-jokingly, half-serious brought up.

Was there, perhaps, such as thing as pangriness?

If there is, it would certainly be helpful for us to know, for a number of reasons:

  • we will probably be stuck with this a pandemic for quite a while, so it’s crucial to understand how it impacts us,
  • even just having a word for an experience can help us feel more in control (and control is something that is sorely missing when you’re in the middle of a pandemic),
  • knowing that this is a real thing can draw attention to an existing problem that we haven’t paid much attention to beforehand,
  • it can also help us have more compassion with ourselves and others (which is also something that would be extremely useful in the current situation),
  • the term pangriness might allow us to make better sense of what we’re going through while providing a shorthand that summarizes a full range of experiences,
  • it might give us a better framework for understanding what we need to do to avoid falling into pangriness.

Before exploring all this, let’s first define pangriness so we know what we’re talking about.

Here’s my proposed definition:

Pangriness: the state of being irrationally angry and/or more irritable due to the extended stress of being in a pandemic.

Alright, I get that I’m self-diagnosing here using a definition I just made up but… that not only sounds like something I’ve experienced myself but also like something I have seen in a ton of other people.

I’m also definitely not the only one.

And while those of us who live in the US might find themselves in a particular “anger incubator,” the empirical evidence for pangriness isn’t limited to one country alone. (After all, we're all stuck in the same time period.)

For instance, journalist Ashleigh Stewart who is currently based in Dubai put it this way:

“I’m not a particularly angry person (my husband might argue otherwise), but in the past week or so, I seem to have a lot less chill than I once did.”

And the UK-based newspaper Metro asked: “Why are so many of us feeling angry in lockdown?”

These examples have me wonder if there’s more than just empirical evidence that suggests that what I had jokingly termed “pangriness” is a real thing.

To explore this, let’s turn to science:

What an analysis of over 20,000,000 tweets reveals about global sentiments

Specifically, we’ll be examining if a study of global sentiments led by Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) supports my hypothesis that pangriness could be a real thing.

As part of this study, 20,325,929 Covid-19 related tweets were collected and analyzed, including 7,033,158 unique users from more than 170 countries.

This comprehensive study found that negative emotions are dominant during the pandemic. While this is not surprising, the increased number of angry tweets might be an indicator that pangriness — “pandemic-induced or -increased angriness” — is a real thing.

With the help of an algorithm, the international team of communication classified these tweets into 4 emotional categories:

  • fear,
  • anger,
  • sadness,
  • joy.

Example tweets

To give you a sense of how tweets were classified, here’s an example of tweets from each category:

Image for post

Source: May Oo Lwin, Jiahui Lu, Anita Sheldenkar, Peter Johannes Schulz, Wonsun Shin, Raj Gupta, Yinping Yang. Originally published in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance (http://publichealth.jmir.org), 22.05.2020. Licensed under CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).

Results

So, what did researchers discover?

They found that the global sentiment over the situation had gradually shifted.

Between 28 January and 9 April, the proportion of fearful tweets nearly halved, declining to under 30%.

At the same time, the number of angry tweets increased substantially, peaking at 29% on 12 March (one day after the WHO’s pandemic declaration).

Image for post

Source: May Oo Lwin, Jiahui Lu, Anita Sheldenkar, Peter Johannes Schulz, Wonsun Shin, Raj Gupta, Yinping Yang. Originally published in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance (http://publichealth.jmir.org), 22.05.2020. Licensed under CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).

In other words, over time, tweeters became less fearful and more angry.

Sounds familiar?

Shifting anger narratives

The researchers made another interesting discovery.

When analyzing the word clouds, it became apparent that the narrative underlying the angry tweets had fundamentally shifted over time.

Here’s the word cloud from 30 January to 1 February:

Image for post

Source: May Oo Lwin, Jiahui Lu, Anita Sheldenkar, Peter Johannes Schulz, Wonsun Shin, Raj Gupta, Yinping Yang. Originally published in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance (http://publichealth.jmir.org), 22.05.2020. Licensed under CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).

As you can see from the prevalence of the word “chinese people,” xenophobia and racism was a very common expressions of anger at this point.

While people in this phase were, on average, less angry than later on, those who sent tweets falling into this category were more likely to either be angry for racist reasons (“chinese people”) or in response to other people’s racism (“excuse racist”).

This tracks with how I remember that period. From what I recall, earlier on in 2020, I was concerned about my Asian American and Asian Canadian friends, given the nastiness of the narrative.

Over time, the narrative shifted, as this very different-looking word cloud from 6 April to 9 April shows:

Image for post

Source: May Oo Lwin, Jiahui Lu, Anita Sheldenkar, Peter Johannes Schulz, Wonsun Shin, Raj Gupta, Yinping Yang. Originally published in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance (http://publichealth.jmir.org), 22.05.2020. Licensed under CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).

Overall, the word clouds reveals that people’s anger is rapidly evolving.

In addition to an astounding number of personal insults and swear words, anger in this phase appears to have shifted away from xenophobia and onto other topics (including “stay home”).

One way of thinking about this is that as more and more people joined the “angry” club, they brought with them anger about a different range of topics.

Conclusion

This comprehensive study found that negative emotions are dominant during the pandemic. While this is not surprising, the increased number of angry tweets might be an indicator that pangriness — “pandemic-induced or -increased angriness” — is a real thing.

What causes pangriness?

There are a number of potential explanations for people’s angry in the midst of the situation we’re in.

1. Anger caused by fear

According to cognitive scientist Paul Thagard, fear and anger are physiologically very similar. He also explains that emotions are causally related which is why fear can lead to anger.

Given that a pandemic brings up a lot of fear, a connection between anger and fear could certainly explain the increase in anger.

2. Anger as a reaction to uncertainty

Social psychologist Larissa Tiedens explains that anger is a reaction to uncertainty (which is a state people want to resolve). Getting angry allows you to

“leave your feelings of uncertainty for a while and occupy a space and a sensibility of certainty and clarity and confidence.”

Again, this is a plausible explanation. The current situation brings up a lot of uncertainty (which is generally unpleasant to experience) and anger makes us feel more certain.

3. Anger as a natural reaction to a distressing event

Counseling psychologist Tanya Dharamshi describes anger as a

“natural reaction to a distressing event and usually follows the initial shock, upset and grief — it’s when we move on to looking for someone or something to apportion blame and vent our frustrations towards.”

Anger as a natural reaction that follows an initial shock would certainly explain why tweets have shifted from fearful to angry.

4. Anger caused by overflowing arousal levels

According to cognitive behavioral therapist Saj Devshi, anger is linked to arousal levels — which we typically lower through activities such as seeing friends or enjoying a change of scenery. In the absence of these things, our arousal levels are essential spilling over which leads to anger.

As I will explain in a minute, this certainly tracks with my own experience — and an effective remedy against pangriness that I found.

The most effective remedy against pangriness

Given that we’re in a rather unprecedented situation, our standard remedies might fail us.

That’s certainly what happened when I tried to undo my overnight transfiguration into a prickly porcupine (my apologies to any porcupines that might rightfully feel insulted by the comparison).

As you might recall, I had tried a number of things to get into a less angry state but to no avail.

Meditation didn’t help. Journaling didn’t help. Going for a walk didn’t help. Taking a breath didn’t help. My regular exercise practice also hadn’t helped.

What then, can help?

Well, a few months ago, I discovered something that made a huge difference to me.

Even if we lack the words to describe our experience, we can still do what toddlers do exceptionally well: scream!

During one part of the “soft lockdown” we were under, I noticed that I really needed to do something to release my excessive energy.

I was standing at a lake that I had just spend an hour walking around with my husband. The sun was slowly setting when I realized that I felt so much excessive energy that I really, really, really wanted to shout and scream (at no one in particular).

At first, I screamed in the car. Then, after making sure that nobody was around, I screamed into nature. It felt really good.

Taking it up a notch

When I got home, I realized that I still had so much excessive energy. I felt like a volcano ready to go off.

So I went to a place in the house that’s well isolated against noises (after all, my neighbors were stuck at home as well and definitely didn’t deserve this), put on some punk rock, and started screaming along to Anarchy in the UK while creating a mosh pit of one (or two, if we count the wall).

At some point, I switched to a high intensity workout routine — and Rage Against the Machine. About 2 hours later, I was a happy, hoarse puddle of sweat.

Despite being super-sore the next day, this was so worth it. Not only was this probably the best I felt during the entire pandemic, I also slept like a baby that night.

Now, based on your living situation, your physical abilities, your health, or your tolerance for the Sex Pistols, this might not be the right approach for you.

However, there are other ways of releasing excessive energy, including screaming in a car (or into a pillow).

The bottom line is this: we’re in a situation and under stresses that we don’t yet have the words for — although the theory of pangriness I have outlined in this article might be a start. Even if we lack the words to describe our experience, we can still do what toddlers do exceptionally well: scream!

After all, as Patrick Jones put it: “There is eloquence in screaming.”

Just, you know, be mindful of your neighbors.

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  • I appreciate your description of your feelings and those of others during this difficult time. I must admit I did something different. Rather, I saw it as a chance to make some changes. I started journaling and meditating. This has helped dealing with the frustration of being locked in.

    • Oh, thanks for sharing that, Larry! Yes, I definitely see how making positive changes, such as adding journaling and meditation, would help ease the frustration of being locked in. Thanks for letting us know what has been working for you!

  • Insightful article and a cool tip. What works for me most of the time is knowing that I have the choice to feel whatever I want to feel. Knowing that the way I feel is actually the outcome of what I focus on, what I am saying to myself and what meaning I attribute to things and how I move. But sometimes even this knowledge doesn’t help. Shaking it off helps most of the times. Focusing on something else too – I like to watch something funny. A comedy, a stand up comedian, a funny YouTube video. I can’t really add screaming to the nature as part of my regular routine given that that would break my voice but I will definitely rather yell at the rock than at my beloved ones😊

    • I agree, most of the time just being aware of what we’re focusing on and how that makes us feel is enough to stay in a good place… and sometimes we need a bit more than that.

      Deliberately watching something funny is a great idea, Misa! I can see how that would really help with depressurising. Thanks for sharing!

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