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Have you been feeling it?

That inexplicable anger that’s been simmering away for weeks.
You can’t explain it to yourself, let alone your partner, your kids, or your colleagues.

Are we just noticing it more, or are people being more aggressive, hostile, and intolerant of others? More reports of road rage and bad behaviour in pubs and clubs and aeroplanes appear to be being reported in the media.

It’s real, and it’s bothering those who are afflicted. At a recent senior female leader’s event, I found myself having the same conversation many times. I was repeatedly asked, “What’s going on?” “I’m usually reasonably laid back and happy… but at the moment I’m constantly on edge, irritable and cranky, and it’s just not me!”

There is an explanation.

Welcome to the Third Quarter Phenomenon.

First described in 1991, the theory behind the third quarter phenomenon relates to the findings of research scientists investigating the impact on humans of prolonged isolation. Think of those who join Antarctic expeditions, space scientists or submariners.

OK, I know what you’re thinking, “But, that’s not me.”

Living through a time of a global pandemic has had a profound effect on us as humans. It’s affected us physiologically and psychologically. In particular, the impact of enforced social isolation during lockdown, being physically distanced from loved ones, or not being permitted to travel to be with family members who are dying, or to attend a funeral, has contributed to the loneliness epidemic and sense of grief, trauma, and loss.

Time may have passed, but our brains are still processing these events at a subconscious level.

Social and physical isolation changes the brain.

The chronic stress resulting from prolonged isolation affects the HPA axis associated with the fight-or-flight response, potentially increasing the risk of anxiety and depression, increasing inflammation leading to the increased risk of disease, and lower expression of BDNF, the brain chemical associated with neuronal health. Lower BDNF affects neuronal plasticity.

The neuroscience of isolation has found that it’s the relative passage of time in an open-ended event such as a pandemic is what contributes to changes in emotion and behaviours.

Three phases of behaviour change during prolonged periods of isolation have been described.

Phase One. This is where the response to the change in circumstance can lead to feelings of being stressed, fearful, uncertain how things will unfold and anxious. You’re running on adrenaline.

Phase Two. Now you’re adapting to the new normal. You’ve learned to manage the situation by creating new rituals to help you cope. This is also the time when depression may set in.

Phase Three. Now you’re fed up. The pandemic has been dragging on, there are glimmers of hope things are getting better as vaccination programs roll out and social restrictions are eased.

You’re anticipating a return to more normal way of life. But with no defined end this can also lead to more emotional outbursts, rowdy behaviour, increased aggression, and anger.

If you’ve been experiencing lower mood and team morale is suffering at work, this is why.

The Third Quarter phenomenon develops about 2/3 of the way through a mission. If you’ve been sent to the Antarctic for 12-months, you’ll know when to expect it.

But with Covid, it’s anyone’s guess as to the timing.

From here the main thing to remember is that the way you currently feel will pass.
Emotions are temporary.
The discomfort of feeling angry, sad, or fed-up is your body signalling you that things have changed.

As you work though the mixed bag of emotions swinging from happy to irritable in a blink of an eye, ask yourself what does this emotion tell me?

When we can understand they why we feel a certain way it’s easier to ascribe meaning which helps you to downplay the intensity of the emotion and remain in control.

Dealing with anger.

Anger can be intense or a low smoulder. It’s frequently associated with grief which encompasses many different emotions including denial, sadness, bargaining and acceptance.

Start with self-compassion. What you are experiencing is normal.

Focus on what you can do, especially those activities that bring you joy, and pleasure and you find energising. What can you schedule in around work to put you in a better frame of mind?

Challenge your thoughts if they are veering towards too much negativity. This is not about being a Positivity Annie or an Unrealistic Richard, it’s about choosing to focus on being on the present, and noticing what’s happening in your body (and mind). This helps to keep self-limiting beliefs or bad thoughts at bay more easily.

Stay connected. This is the most important time to be actively reaching out and interacting with friends and family. Talk things through. Share how you are feeling. Knowing that you’re not the only one feeling this is reassuring in itself.

Angry?

It’s OK. Acknowledge the emotion and give yourself permission to allow it to resolve over time by doing those things that help you to relax, smile and laugh more.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Jenny is a Board-Certified Lifestyle Medicine Physician, author, coach, and workplace health and wellbeing specialist. Her latest book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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