Anger, Trauma, and PTSD
Anger is often a large part of a survivor's response to trauma. It is a core piece of the survival response in human beings. Anger helps us cope with life's stresses by giving us energy to keep going in the face of trouble. Yet anger can create major problems in the personal lives of those who have experienced trauma and those who suffer from PTSD.
Anger as a common response to trauma
One way to think about anger as a response to trauma is as a natural survival instinct. When faced with extreme threat, you often respond with anger. Anger can help you survive by shifting your focus. You focus all of your attention, thought, and action toward survival.
Anger is also a common response to events that seem unfair or in which you have been made a victim. Anger can be especially common if you have been betrayed by others. This may be most often seen in cases of trauma that involve abuse or violence.
The trauma and shock of early childhood abuse often affects how well you learn to control your emotions. Problems in this area lead to frequent outbursts of extreme emotions, including anger and rage.
How can anger after a trauma become a problem?
In people who develop PTSD, their response to extreme threat can become "stuck." This may lead to responding to all stress in survival mode. If you have PTSD, you may be more likely to react to any stress with "full activation." You may react as if your life or self is being threatened.
These 3 factors can lead someone with PTSD to react with anger, even in situations that don't involve extreme threat:
Arousal. Anger is marked by certain reactions in the body. The systems most closely linked to emotion and survival are called into action. They include:
Anger is also marked by the muscles becoming tense. If you have PTSD, this higher level of tension and arousal can become your normal state. That means the emotional and physical feelings of anger are more intense. If you have PTSD, you may often feel on edge, keyed up, or irritable. You may be easily provoked. This high level of arousal may cause you to actually seek out situations that require you to stay alert and ward off danger.
Behavior. Often the best response to extreme threat is to act aggressively to protect yourself. Many trauma survivors, especially those who went through trauma at a young age, never learn any other way of handling threat. They tend to become stuck in their ways of reacting when they feel threatened. They may be impulsive, acting before they think. Aggressive behaviors can include:
Thoughts and beliefs. Everyone has thoughts or beliefs that help them understand and make sense of their surroundings. After trauma, a person with PTSD may think or believe that threat is all around, even when this is not true. A person with PTSD may not be fully aware of these thoughts and beliefs.
If you have PTSD, you may not be aware of how your thoughts and beliefs have been affected by trauma. Some common thoughts of people with PTSD are:
"I can't trust anyone."
"If I lost control, it would be horrible, life-threatening, or could not be tolerated."
"After all I've been through, I deserve to be treated better than this."
"Others are out to get me," or "They won't protect me."
Getting help for your anger
In anger management treatment, problems with arousal, behavior, and beliefs are all addressed in different ways. A common talk therapy called cognitive-behavioral treatment (CBT), uses many techniques to manage these 3 anger problem areas:
Increased arousal. Learn skills that will reduce your overall arousal. You may learn how to relax, use self-hypnosis, and use physical exercises that release tension.
Behavior. Look at how you usually behave when feeling threatened or stressed. The next goal is to help you expand the range of possible responses. This can include taking a time out or talking with someone instead of acting.
Thoughts and beliefs. Start to become more aware of your own thoughts leading up to becoming angry. Then you will learn to come up with more positive thoughts to replace your negative, angry ones. For example, say to yourself, "Even if I don't have control here, I won't be threatened in this situation."
Goals of treatment
There are many ways to help people with PTSD deal with the high levels of anger they may feel. Treatment aims to help with all aspects of anger. One important goal of treatment is to improve your sense of flexibility and control. So you don't have to feel like you're going through trauma again each time you react to a trigger with explosive or excessive anger. Treatment may also have a positive impact on personal and work relationships.