By: Diana Bello Aristizábal
South Florida and other parts of the state have become battlefields for many. Car horns triggered at the slightest provocation, rudeness shown in a ‘good morning’ that no one repplies to, indifferent glances in the supermarket line or fights in social media groups seem to be the new normal in the middle of a pandemic that demands otherwise.
“We live in a high level of alertness,” says Erika Monroy, a clinical and educational psychologist specialized in emotional intelligence about a problem that is not unique to Florida but to the entire United States and even the world.
However, Florida often tops the rankings for the most hostile places in the country, as, for example, in a recent Bankrate.com study in which it ranked third as the state with the most aggressive drivers in the United States after California and Nevada.
Is this surprising to those of us who live in Miami-Dade? The answer is no because if there is one indicator of the increase in aggressive behavior and intolerance in the population, it is precisely road rage that is so familiar to people in this county.
But the problem with this hostile behavior prevalent throughout the country is that many times it does not end in an exchange of insults or in a temporary bad moment, but rather in tragedy.
This is what happened to a family in California, whose 6-year-old son died after being shot as a result of a road rage incident, while in Miami Beach a man almost lost his life after dodging a bullet from the gun of a woman who decided to step out of her vehicle and attack him only for not letting her pass a red light.
“In Florida, you never know who is armed and who isn’t. In fact, firearms sales increased during the pandemic because now mistrust and fear reign,” says Jairo Ledezma, sociology and history professor at Miami-Dade College.
But what is increasing aggressiveness? Does the pandemic have something to do with this trend? And can we do something to live better in community?
Aggression as a response to fear
It is a reality that the pandemic has brought both positive and negative changes in the world. Within the latter group, the most notable change has to do with the increase in mental health illnesses.
“Anxiety and depression have increased by 300% since the pandemic began. In addition, sleep problems, alcoholism, drug addiction, and child abuse also increased,” highlights Erika Monroy.
This trend is related with the social changes humanity has been experiencing since last year when the world took an unexpected turn that tested people in all areas.
“Changes happening at a society level always affect us individually. For example, the riots that took place last year in response to the fight for social justice changed the way we view authorities while the challenges brought by the pandemic, such as adjusting to new labor rules, changed our way of thinking,” says Jairo Ledezma.
As a consequence of these times, where uncertainty prevails, the general response has been panic. “People internalized all the struggles that we have faced since last year such as unemployment, racism, political division and shootings and now they are expressing it,” adds Ledezma.
Feeling fear is not something negative because it can protect us from dangerous situations. However, it can become counterproductive when we react to it with unsympathetic or aggressive behaviors.
“We attack when we feel fear like animals that bite those who try to take away their food, it is a way of survival,” adds Erika Monroy, who explains that in South Florida this is even more common due to the highly emotional nature of Hispanics.
But, in addition, fear is even more intense in this country region because most of the people living here are immigrants struggling to get ahead. “People come to Miami and find themselves in survival mode, which means working a lot, sleeping little or not having friends. If you add to this the problems brought by the pandemic, such as taking care of children and working at the same time, you have a time bomb,” says Erika.
The six-second rule
The individual and collective difficulties we are currently facing are often beyond our control. Still, this should not serve as an excuse to attack others, as we must take responsibility for the way we react to life’s challenges.
This means we can adopt strategies to better respond to external circumstances. One of them is to think before acting, which translate into taking a pause for 6 to 10 seconds before deciding what to do. It is a kind of ‘time out’ like the one taught to children.
In this period of time, which can be used to follow our breathing pattern or to walk, the brain can reflect on the stimuli that are presented and thus appease its most primitive side, which is the one that is activated in emergency situations.
“When we manage to wait that long, we can consciously reflect on what is happening around us in order to not have an impulsive reaction. This is called self-regulation,” explains Erika Monroy.
But in order to apply this rule successfully, it is important that each person integrated in a community first takes care of themselves by practicing self-care habits that allow them to develop tolerance to stress, flexibility and optimism.
Although many of them are basic for some people, others have a hard time keeping them over time due to the agitated life in which we live in. These are: sleeping between 6 and 8 hours a day, doing aerobic exercises to create serotonin and dopamine, both responsible for the states of well-being, meditating and eating healthy.
But you also have to do a work of introspection, recognizing those situations that trigger aggressive behavior and then observing the bodily reactions that comes with it. “When we get angry we breathe hard or our hearts race. These physical manifestations connected with our belief system determine the way in which we express that emotion,” explains Erika.
However, when we realize what is happening within ourselves in the face of a stimulus, we bring the unconscious mind to the conscious one, and then we can develop socio-emotional skills, which are essential to live in a community.
Also, it is required to do a detox job. This refers to consuming less social media, watching less negative news, and staying away from toxic people in order to oxygenate the brain, spread positive emotions onto others and change reality.
In turn, people should practice being fully present or mindful in every moment avoiding multitasking, as well as increasing patience and openness towards other ways of life and cultures.
“To be more compassionate, you have to educate yourself about other cultures and races different from yours. When we get out of our bubble in which we only interact with the people of our country, as it happens in Miami, we can understand others and be less aggressive,” points out Jairo Ledezma.