Dealing with Our Anger

By Steven Reames, Executive Director, Ada County Medical Society

As we move towards implementing crisis standards of care for the first time in Ada County’s history, there is a lot of anger out there. It’s no wonder with a projection of 30,000 new COVID cases statewide in a week, an ongoing shortage of healthcare personnel to go around, and a lack of political will. One could think our state emblem might best be changed to hot potatoes.

“This was all avoidable” is the common refrain I hear around the medical community, with hands thrown up in the air. “We have a vaccine that is effective, safe, and widely available. It didn’t need to come to this.” But it has and a lot of doctors are plain just exasperated.

It is bad enough that they have worked possibly more hours than ever in their careers and training in the most dangerously exposed situations. They have witnessed dozens of patients up close who are unable to breathe, speak, and say goodbye to friends and family – again and again and again…

The populace gorges on conspiracy theories and alternative treatments promoted by doctors that apparently never bought into evidence-based medicine. On top of that is the stunning amount of disrespect and anger pointed at them, sometimes by the patients and families they are caring for directly.

At our August Zoo event, one doctor told me, "What I don't get is the patients who I have cared for 30 years, delivered their babies and taken one of their parents through hospice, tell me, 'Yah, I just don't think the vaccination is safe. I’m going to take Ivermectin my dad has at the farm.' So, what am I supposed to do with that?"

I talked with another physician last week who has taken a lead role in her institution. I told her how sorry I was for the hits she has taken in public for standing up and stating the scientific facts. She sighed. “I was just never prepared how to respond to people like this.”

Angry female physician yelling through bullhorn 

It is entirely human to be angry when you experience injustice, offense, disregard, and trespass. So, in this regard, anger is not any more wrong or right than happiness or sadness as an emotion. Indeed, anger can be productive when it stimulates us to action that can bring about positive change.

But the dark side of anger is that when we stuff it, ignore it, or deny it for too long, a bitter root can easily grow into a rocky range of unhealthy attitudes, habits, and behaviors. And when anger finally peaks, it can become an explosion of rage directed outward, nearby allies catching some of your friendly fire. It most certainly can affect your physical health and when people try to dull it with alcohol and other addictions, that’s not healthy either.

I can offer no pat answers about how you should manage your own anger, but here are a few suggestions that have worked for me over the years

Acknowledge and Express Your Anger (Safely) We do need to claim this emotion as our own and the basis for its legitimacy. It is useful to define precisely what we are angry about and why that makes us so mad. Then, figure out a healthy and safe way to vocalize it.

  • That could be with other people you trust who can handle it without being triggered or burdened by it. Spouses, friends, peers, priests, and counselors may be among them.
  • Both hospitals have confidential peer to peer programs for medical staff and ACMS’ Physician Vitality Program provides free counseling to members and even some for local non-members.
  • Don’t want to talk to somebody in Idaho? Here’s a list of national resources and hotlines.
  • If you don’t feel comfortable spewing your anger to another person, turn on your voice recorder in the car on the way home and enumerate out loud all the reasons you are mad. Or open a document and rant away if writing is more therapeutic. (You don’t need to save and probably should not send these anywhere.)
  • Sometimes tears, sobs, and heaves are the only way to express anger, especially when it is caused by grief.

Limit Your Media Intake. The other day I found myself scrolling through news headlines for an hour. As a com major, I know that social and news media’s algorithms are designed to exploit my brain’s desire for some sort of chemical hit. But it is just as likely that it feeds my Mr. Hyde rather than my Dr. Jekyll.

Sometimes I’ll listen to classical or spiritual music instead of news on the way home or turn off the radio altogether. Instead of looking at Facebook, viewing digital family videos or photos is a good substitute. And by all means, rather than listening to somebody else’s radio rant, I would encourage you to tune your dial into somebody that you know.

If you are afraid of missing the latest news headline, subscribe to a reliable and non-inflammatory news source like the new non-profit Idaho Capital Sun and read the morning summary. But trust me from my month-long media fast one time: if there’s something earth-shattering that happens, you’ll find out about it.

Reclaim Your Locus of Control. As a counselor has told me, if you didn’t cause it, and you can’t control it, then you probably shouldn’t try to cure it. I remember how in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey talks about reactive people who focus their energy on things beyond their control. We just have to accept there is just going to be certain groups of people in this world who have a different worldview, values, and priorities than us. Even if you have better and more reliable information, they are probably not going to change. Don’t spend any more of your precious emotional energy on them, especially right now; you need it for the weeks and months ahead.

Act with Intention. Covey also makes the point that proactive people focus on what they can do and pushing their circles of influence out into their circles of concern. If this is possible for you, then by all means do it, as long as you conserve the energy you need for your core responsibilities.

Finally, Forgive Often. Like many of you, my wife and I are trying to practice “Three Good Things” and name what we are grateful for on a regular basis. This week I had the epiphany that I needed to add “three people I need to forgive” to the daily routine.

It’s true: over the past season, I have allowed too many people to become identifiable “enemies” and then I spend inordinate amounts of time having fantasy courtroom conversations with them in my head and how I’m going to prosecute them for their “crimes” against me. Your job is too important to have a clouded heart or head. I encourage you: practice forgiveness often, release people from your judgment, and focus instead on who and what you are grateful for.


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