SIOUX CITY -- You don't have to scroll far through the comments of a social media post to find name-calling, personal attacks, dismissive statements and even threats in today's politically charged climate.
Research shows that anger spreads faster than any other emotion on social media networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. Many users are quick to overreact to any viewpoint that differs from their own, losing their tempers.
A study published in the medical journal PLoS ONE in 2013, examined Weibo, one of the most popular social media platforms in China. Researchers found that anger was more influential among users than joy, with sadness being among the least influential emotions.
Kelsey Sigler, a therapist at Family Wellness Associates in Sioux City, has taken note of increased aggression on social media sites stemming from hot-button issues, such as the right to bear arms and women's reproductive rights.
"People develop their beliefs based on their life experience. I think that at times people get triggered by these topics that come up in the news. Sometimes, they'll play puppets to their emotions. They don't necessarily know how to express themselves in a positive way," she said. "They just haven't dealt with something they've been through or maybe they just have such rigid beliefs that they're not willing to be open minded to the other side."
Sigler said social media can be a "very effective tool" to establish and maintain connections and a "positive outlet" to express oneself, but she said the downside is that it can also be harnessed to hurt others. She said she tells her clients, "It's OK to be angry, but it's not OK to be cruel."
While anger is a normal emotion that is temporary, comments resulting from anger will theoretically linger in cyberspace forever. According to Sigler, those comments could negatively impact how other people view you as a person, as well as the amount of legitimacy afforded to your viewpoints and arguments in the future.
"When people don't want to hear us, I think it just creates even more anger and frustration, so it feeds into this really unhealthy cycle," said Sigler, who suggests joining a social media group of like-minded people to get your opinions and beliefs out to the masses in a positive way rather than engaging in confrontation and aggression.
"I think that people feel more validated and understood and acknowledged when they can be in a group of similar-minded people," she said. "I think that would really head off a lot of frustration that we see online, if people would become more proactive in what they're doing and be productive members of society by getting involved."
When anger affects a person's ability to function in daily life, impacting relationships, employment and overall happiness, Sigler said it's time to seek professional help. Anger management therapy, she said, is individualized, but starts with exploring the root of the anger.
"We know that anger is a secondary emotion -- there's always something that comes before that. Usually what we'll see underneath that is hurt, disappointment, frustration and then it grows into that anger that almost is like a cancer that metastasizes through the person's life," she said. "What we really want to do is get in there and dig up that root."
Through cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of talk therapy, Sigler said therapists explore how a patient's thoughts, feelings and behaviors are connected to help them adapt their thoughts and feelings to ultimately change the way they react. Patients learn coping and deescalation skills that they can turn to when they feel their faces becoming flushed and hearts beginning to race.
"Doing a body scan and recognizing what's happening for you and then engaging some of those coping skills for yourself, whether that's taking a deep breath or walking away from the situation, going and doing something you enjoy," she said. "I think the key is to disengage from the situation, especially online. You're not stuck in a face-to-face interaction where you feel the need to necessarily respond with immediacy."
What if you're the social media user anger is being directed at?
Sigler said a negative reaction may exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and depression and leave the person on the receiving end feeling as if their beliefs are being negated. She said targets of anger need to remember that not every interaction requires a reaction. They may be better served by disengaging and embracing the power of silence.
"They don't have to justify their beliefs and they don't have to agree with the other person. They can simply just pass by that comment and keep going about whatever they're doing and not allow it to affect what they're doing in that given moment," she said. "Just ride it out and just keep scrolling."