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Traumatized and Angry: Why Am I Having a Surge of Emotions?

How to handle increased emotions.

Anger is an intense biological reaction to an injustice, betrayal, a violation, or something that is fundamentally wrong. These things are supposed to make us angry, outraged, and upset.

For those with a history of trauma, a current event that may activate emotions such as anger also will likely activate past memories related to the same emotions. This is like plugging in a string of holiday lights. The string is the emotion and the individual lights are all of the events that are aligned with that feeling. When the string of lights is plugged in, all the lights along the string light up.

If you have ever been accused of “overreacting,” it is because you are reacting to much more than a single light bulb. Your reaction makes perfect sense given the context of other events that you have experienced. It is a reaction to the whole string of events, not just to one light bulb. But others may not understand this because they only see one bulb, not the long history of events.

Other people’s experiences can also plug in your string of lights. This is called vicarious trauma. You feel the trauma of someone else because you can imagine it happening to you. This is why other people’s experiences can spark memories and feelings of your own past experiences and ignite strong reactions.

Sometimes anger can be pushed aside and you may think you have dealt with a past event, as if it should stay in the past and never bother you again. However, when something in the environment occurs, such as another injustice, betrayal, or violation, it wakes up those feelings with a jolt of energy saying, “Hey! This is terribly wrong!”

And, all of a sudden you are remembering all the other wrongs that have happened to you and to others in the world. You may feel like a field of lights are firing in your brain, derailing your focus, and interrupting your sleep. You may experience intrusive thoughts, grief, frustration, and helplessness. It may be difficult to tease apart reactions to the present from reactions to the past. You may think you are fine, but then notice that you are more irritable or short-fused about minor things.

These are normal reactions, but nonetheless disturbing. Anger can be overwhelming … gripping your attention and pulling you into a rabbit hole of memories.

Anger can be constructive as it can be a dynamic catalyst for change. It is active, energizing, and motivating. Anger can be useful and powerful. But anger can also be destructive if misdirected or if it gets out of control. Anger should be channeled appropriately. Otherwise, the adrenalin associated with anger can literally blind people from good judgment. The rush of stress hormones, otherwise known as the fight or flight response, directs blood flow to the extremities and away from the part of the brain that controls judgment. Have you ever heard the saying, “blind with rage?”

Instead, let’s discuss how to process reactions to anger and injustice productively. What can you do with all of your emotions, not only anger, but fear, grief, vulnerability, and disbelief? And all the associated lights that could be currently activated?

I want to reiterate that your reactions are valid and appropriate. But why should you have to continue to suffer, disrupt your functioning, and endure consequences? It is not fair for you to get caught in a swirl of memories, nightmares, and panic attacks.

A good first place to start is with the breath. Take a big inhale and then exhale with a sigh. This will help metabolize the stress hormones, regulate your emotions, and release tension. Take a few deep breaths. It is also helpful to release tears (via crying) or sweat (via exercise) as these are natural ways to detoxify stress from the body. This will help move you through the acute phase of upset. Aromatherapy can help by calming the nervous system, as the olfactory nerve passes through the mid-brain (the limbic system) where we process memories and emotions. Some find Eucalyptus oil refreshing and effective at diffusing anger and upset. There are many scents, and you can find works best for you.

Another biological reaction to stress identified by UCLA researcher, Shelly Taylor, Ph.D., is called “tend and befriend.” This is the instinctual desire to come together as a community. To share, break the silence and isolation, and help others feel understood and validated. This is very important because often injustices occur in secrecy and denial. Victims are blamed as a way to misdirect the attention away from a perpetrator. Systems of power can minimize or deny an injustice because of their own agenda to make it go away.

The tend and befriend reaction helps individuals know that they are not alone, not overreacting, and are not going crazy. Whatever your particular trauma, there are others who understand and can relate. Maybe you can find community through music, joining a virtual group, through a religious or spiritual group, or reading something inspirational.

Next, think of productive ways to express yourself without creating an injustice or violation to others. Doing what has been done to you, does not make it right. It just adds more pain and anger. Productive expression may include talking about it, writing about it, drawing or painting, singing, dancing, or sharing with friends and allies.

It is also helpful to focus on an activity. Think of your interests and what you can do to contribute to something. Do you like to garden, quilt, do house projects, or fix cars? Do you like to hike or run? Do you like animals? Do you like to work? Think about how you can be a contribution to something positive while adhering to your values and life desires. Even a simple gesture of kindness can bring peace, comfort, and beauty to others and yourself. Finding ways to be productive and helpful can be very empowering.

Feelings come and they go. They peak and subside. Feelings may give you energy, but your mind helps you form thoughtful and productive actions.

As in the words of a dear friend and colleague, “Manage your gift of anger in a productive and progressive way. Letting anger dismantle you, also dismantles its effectiveness.” –L. W. Thomas, Sr.

Action Step: Focus on releasing your attachment to the past by grounding yourself in the present. You are here, right now, in this particular breath. Practice deep breathing. Raising your arms on the inhale, and lowering them on the exhale. As you inhale, open to life, and as you exhale, release all that no longer serves you.