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Is the coronavirus pandemic making us mean?

Chris Cuomo admitted the coronavirus is making him meaner and others noticed being easily irritated too. But experts say something else is going on.
/ Source: TODAY

When Chris Cuomo updated viewers on his continuing treatment for COVID-19, he noted that the virus has frayed his emotions and he feels easily irritated. While being sick certainly causes people to feel intense frustration, Cuomo isn’t alone in noticing that the coronavirus pandemic is making people, well, a little meaner.

“It is making people irritable or having a shorter fuse or more quick to anger,” Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital and host of the podcast "Personology," told TODAY. “When you give people high anxiety or even when you give them a lot of sadness and loss, irritability is often a symptom.”

You're not being inherently mean. It's stress.

Saltz doesn’t think people are getting meaner. Jeremy Tyler — a director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia — agreed.

“When I think of somebody being mean I think the person has the intent to do something to hurt somebody,” he told TODAY. “Your intention is to make that person feel bad. So I don't know that (the pandemic) is making people mean per se, but I think it's absolutely pushing our limit.”

Another way to tell that we're not getting meaner is that most people realize they’re lashing out and feel badly about it.

“The person themselves would acknowledge they just feel quicker to be annoyed by things and to spark to anger as a result, which is quite different than being mean,” Saltz said. “The (cycle) of feeling extremely stressed and irritable, barking at someone and feeling guilty you did something that under other circumstances you wouldn’t have done.”

On top of the uncertainty and stress, the pandemic means people are stuck at home with the same people, doing the same thing day after day.

“As a country, we pride ourselves on being very individualistic,” Tyler said. “Two people who are married might very much value that they both have their own careers, different work out schedules and then they come home and share in a wonderful time together. Now it’s like you’re saying, ‘Nope, that’s all being taken away.’”

People also worry that they or someone they know will get sick, they might lose their job and wonder how long life like this will last. People feel under attack and this makes it easier to snap at a spouse, child, parent or roommate when they do something seemingly harmless.

“Regardless if you have the virus or not, when you're in that situation where you feel threatened … We do have a biological wiring to retaliate, fight or flight,” Tyler said. “Sometimes our loved ones end up being in that line of fire.”

How to change your attitude:

But the experts agree there are ways to manage irritability and stop snapping at other people: Tyler said that people should be more willing to communicate their wants.

“You need to be overly communicative about what you need,” he explained. “Just saying something like, ‘You know I'm feeling really kind of antsy and I just need 45 minutes to do like a little personal work out.’”

Mary Fristad, a psychologist in the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, said relying on the things that keep people strong will be useful in preventing emotional outbursts. One way to help is by connecting with people outside of the house.

“Support is really important. We are physically distanced. What are the ways we can be very socially connected?” she told TODAY. “Stay in touch with friends and family that perhaps you haven’t had so much time with.”

She also recommends addressing uncomfortable feelings.

“Simply acknowledge the feelings. ‘Oh honey you sound so frustrated right now. This situation is frustrating isn’t it?’” Fristad said. “It's really obvious that life is uncertain and more curious at the moment than it usually is and just acknowledge that.”

Getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, exercising, enjoying nature (if possible) and meditating or praying can all help people feel more resilient and better able to handle errant emotions.

“Just make choices that are wise for today,” she said. “We do have that in our control.”