Protests, riots & scandals, OH MY!
You do not have to look very far to find something to be upset about. Lately, it seems that everywhere you look, you can see two opposing sides locked in a never-ending battle to prove what is right and what is wrong. Even those who refuse to get caught up in the intensity (and at times absurdity) of the chaos often find it hard to avoid the endless social media posts, 24 hour news reels of doom, and other frantic attempts by media to get you engaged and outraged.
Passionate engagement in your community can provide a sense of purpose, meaning and connection - all powerful contributors to mental health. However, there is a dark side of being immersed in conflict for prolonged periods of time, even if it is indirectly. Allowing yourself to be constantly offended/outraged by the goings on of the world will inevitably destroy your mental health.
The Poison of Outrage
Outrage is an emotional beast of its own and, psychologically, very taxing on the mind and body. When you are outraged, you are struggling to accept that something is not the way you want or think it should be. You cannot accept that your expectations have been broken. If you cannot immediately change what is bothering you but also cannot find a way to accept it, the internal conflict activates your brain’s stress and survival response. Often called fight or flight, this response drastically reduces your ability to remain rational and reasonable when faced with conflict. In this state of hyperarousal, you are more likely to say and do things you otherwise would not when engaged in a heated argument or disagreement. Your ability to problem solve is also drastically compromised. When you are in fight or flight, your brain is focused only on getting what you feel you need. In the case of the offended person, it only cares about being right.
From Coffee to Chaos
Imagine getting up on a lovely weekend morning. It is beautiful outside and you are looking forward to having some downtime after a busy work week. You make a cup of coffee and turn on CBC to see what’s changed since the evening before. Before your volume is even high enough to hear the broadcast you see words scrolling across the screen. COVID. Lockdown. Not enough vaccines. Murder. A missing child. Political turmoil. Mayhem and controversy, all offered up in a frame of bright red designed to grab and keep your attention.
While you drink your coffee you probably will not realize the slight increase in your blood pressure, that your breathing rate has increased and become more shallow, or that your muscles have begun to tighten. These are the changes that signal the beginning of fight or flight; your brain’s response to the alarming reports and visuals on your TV. Like a trusted guard, your brain is constantly scanning your external world for possible stressors or threats, anything that might pose a problem – and the news is definitely posing a problem!
Now imagine your spouse enters the room and makes a comment on one of the news stories. They start with, “I just can’t believe that…” and continue into a full monologue sharing their outrage at how things are, will be or have been. You heart rate increases even more. You feel an energy building up inside in addition to the muscle tension, making it hard to sit still. Your skin is flush and warm. Your jaw clenches. You sit your coffee on the table and quietly swear in your head. You just wanted to sit and have a coffee.
If you agree with your spouse you might be able to listen, give a soft nod and then return to enjoying your coffee. But, if you are not on the same page you now have a new dilemma. Do you escalate the situation by stating your opposing perspective or stay quiet, bite your tongue and silently brood at how wrong someone can be this early in the morning? Either way, outrage has already hijacked your morning, your body, and might be about to hijack your relationship!
What is Outrage Costing You?
With all the other pressures you will face daily, maintaining your mental health means carefully deciding where and when you spend your mental energy. What did you gain from starting the day with conflict and tragedy? How many times a week are you commiserating around the water cooler, in the staff room or even over the phone with like-minded friends. How much of your mental energy are you wasting on being offended and outraged?
Managing your emotional output does not mean you cannot have an opinion. Nor does it mean you cannot care deeply about making your community better for everyone. It does, however, mean that worrying about your outer world will require paying more attention to your internal world. Allowing yourself to get so upset that you literally compromise your ability to think straight serves your community and your health in no way at all.
Curiosity: The Anti-dote to Outrage
If you truly want to change the world, start with your own. If you find yourself constantly offended and irritates, take up a position of neutral curiosity and ask yourself the following questions:
1. What is it I just cannot accept about this issue and why?
There are times when you may not fully comprehend or know your own position on an issue. Quietly exploring your own feelings on a topic can provide a sense of clarity on what you want to change and why. It can also help you identify how important the issue is to you and why you want to take action.
2. Is this an issue that affects me directly?
Few things spread quicker than outrage! Asking yourself this question will help you identify if you feel personally connected to an issue or if you are getting caught up in the social buzz ( Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us!)
3. Why am I so upset?
Did you have a particularly long day or week? Are you already exhausted and stressed out ? When you are already overwhelmed the path to outrage is a very short one. Take time to investigate whether or not there are other pressures fuelling your fire.
4. Is it helpful or harmful?
If you are truly and genuinely upset by an issue, ask yourself if the level of upset and offence you feel (and communicate) is helpful to your cause. Does it encourage others to listen and want to support you? What does it change to be angry and offended all the time? How has being constant outrage impacted your health, well-being and relationships?
5. What can I do different?
Here is where things change. If you are upset about something you truly feel passionate about, then look for a way to contribute without leaving yourself exhausted or upset. How can you stay calm but engaged? Would it help to disconnect for a while and take some time to re-balance? Avoiding the perils of outrage does not mean watching the Sound of Music on repeat every day, it just means embracing a willingness to step back, let go, and re-charge for a bit.
Humanity has accomplished much, but is still very young. We have a lot to work out together and the changes to be made will require all of us to be at the top of our mental game. Despite its media monopoly, outrage creates no good in the world. It is merely the poison that bring us into deeper conflict with ourselves and each other.
You do not need to sacrifice your mental health to effect positive change. So, as you look to find healthier ways to cope and contribute, never lose sight of one simple fact:
Healthy people build healthy communities; and it is healthy communities that create a better world.
“Mind your mind, and the rest will follow!” - Bonnie J. Skinner, RP.
About the author
Bonnie J. Skinner is a Registered Psychotherapist and Certified Canadian Counsellor. Having developed her career in community based mental health across Canada, Bonnie now owns and operates a practice in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario where she helps individuals, couples , families and organizations overcome obstacles to their chosen goals.
For more information on anxiety, depression, and other mental health topics visit www.skinnerpsychotherapy.com/blog.