More and more, Americans seem pushed to their limits.
They’re feuding about politics, protests, the pandemic. Fights about whether or not to wear a mask are playing out both publicly and on social media.
Meghan Gardner, co-owner of the Common Loon Public House in Orono, figured she’d seen it all after working more than 20 years in the service industry. But what happened on July 26 in her pub was a first, she said.
A group of diners walked into the pub, she said, and briefly argued with staff about the state’s mask mandate aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Eventually the group conceded, put on their masks and headed upstairs to the outside deck. But when a server reminded them of the mask policy, a woman in the group flipped.
She threw the menus and silverware off the table when the server told her group to leave, and spit at the server on the way out, according to Gardner. Police investigated the incident but ultimately didn’t file charges.
“This is a complicated and sort of dangerous time to be working with the public,” Gardner said. “At the end of the day, we don’t want to have these philosophical or political debates with people. This is what we have to do to stay open.”
While Gardner said she received a lot of support from the community after sharing the incident on social media, others pushed back.
A crisis, such as a pandemic, that causes the type of festering tension that seems to drive these public outbursts has been described by some mental health experts as an “anger incubator.” And it’s a lot to manage, they say.
Surveys over the past few years indicate that anger had risen in the country even before the 2020 health, economic and racial crises that washed the nation with fear and uncertainty. A Gallup poll conducted in 2018 concluded that more Americans were stressed, worried and angered compared to the previous year. About 22 percent of Americans had felt anger the previous day, up from 17 percent a year earlier.
Matt Tiffany, a Lewiston-based mental health therapist, said that many more of his clients than usual have been struggling with anger issues over the past few months.
“It’s alarming for people to be feeling so on edge for long periods of time,” he said.
His clients come from all walks of life and hold varied political and social views. But they all have something in common: the intensity of their feelings.
“People are afraid. People are angry about the response — or lack of response — shown by their government, their local officials, the people they see at the grocery store,” he said.
And the pervasiveness of those feelings is understandable, said Tiffany, who said he shares many of them.
“It’s a boon and [a curse] to be struggling with the same kinds of things as my clients,” he said. “It helps at times, and at times we end up feeling lost together — which can also help, I suppose.”
But all that anger has a cost. When people experience low patience thresholds, they often become rigid or locked in their beliefs. They have limited capacity to tolerate challenges or stress. This friction can be seen in social interactions these days, and its consequences are playing out in both national and local headlines.
At a Dunkin’ Donuts store in Rockland last month, a man allegedly flashed his gun while standing in line after another customer pointed out that he wasn’t wearing a face mask. The man allegedly claimed he couldn’t wear one because he was wearing “this,” and then lifted up his shirt to show a handgun on his waist.
Another situation escalated in Belfast recently, after a man abruptly stormed the mayor at an outdoor listening session and cursed him and other city officials in front of townspeople.
“People are very reflexive these days,” Belfast Mayor Eric Sanders said after the incident. “Rage limits you. We’re in a limited society right now because rage is in control.”
In dark moments, it seems unlikely that this cycle of rage can ever be broken. But one midcoast expert believes it’s possible.
“If you’re not afraid on this planet right now, you’re crazy. That’s the truth of it,” Peggy Smith, an expert in nonviolent communication from Lincolnville, said.
However, this is a transformational moment, she said.
“It’s not about anger — it’s about fear,” Smith said.
But people must find ways to let their guard down, she said.
“We’ve been taught to be afraid of being vulnerable,” she said. “But our actual strength is being able to own and express our own vulnerability.”
When they’re angry, people can’t access the rational part of their brain, she said. Their bodies move toward “fight, flight or despair.”
People think better when they’re more relaxed, Smith said.
Experts encourage people to pay attention and focus on the positive moments in their lives.
Simple self-care, such as getting enough sleep, water, nutritious food and exercise can help. It’s also important to be mindful about media consumption, and tune out when needed.
Confiding in a counselor — particularly one who is objective and able to challenge counterproductive ways of thinking — may also be useful, Tiffany said.
“I hear a lot of, ‘I feel like I’m the only one who thinks this is all just insane’,” he said. “Getting to spend an hour talking with someone who helps them realize they aren’t alone can be a big help.”