- Anger in the aftermath of traumatic events is both a common and complex response.
- Recognizing anger as a residual of our fight/flight response or a mask for depression offers healing options.
- Making connections despite our anger opens a dwelling place for our pain and grief and a way forward.
You are not alone if you have experienced a traumatic event and you feel angry. Be it the loss of a child, the destruction of one’s home, a life-threatening diagnosis, the ravages of war, the experience of racial oppression, or the sequel to combat stress, the experience of being angry is both a common and complex response.
Anger can be experienced as a physiological state, an emotion, a way of thinking, a way of behaving, or a combination of these.
Anger as Residual of the Fight/Flight Response
It is to our advantage that our biological arousal system goes into survivor mode in the face of danger, causing an increase in heart rate, rapid shallow breathing, cold sweats, tingling muscular tension, and often antagonistic behavior.
The problem is that when the danger has passed, our body often remains in a state of hyperarousal, leaving us reacting with anger to what would ordinarily be mildly distressing stimuli.
- We blow up or are irritated by anyone asking if things are starting to get easier.
- We impatiently wait in line or over-react if something breaks.
- We find ourselves fighting more often with our partners.
- We drive faster, yell more, and may even put ourselves and others at risk.
Trauma expert, Bessel Van Der Kolk reminds us that The Body Keeps Score. Because the anger we feel in the aftermath of trauma is related to our body’s physical response to trauma, we need to work from the body out to bring it down. Working to reduce our anger is not irrelevant to our loss or our sense of horror.
Basic for Recovery is Body Awareness
Resetting our body rhythms with shifts in breathing can also cause shifts in thoughts and feelings. Van Der Kolk suggests that when you notice you are feeling anxious and angry, take a deep breath in and a deep breath out with a long exhale, and then notice how your anger and anxiety shift. This is called the long exhale or prolonged breathing, which engages the Vagus Nerve and triggers the Parasympathetic Nervous System to reduce our Fight/Flight Responses.
The AWE Method
A simple proven way to use breathing to reduce anger and anxiety is the AWE method researched and developed by Jack Eagle LPC and Michael Amster MD (2023). Building on the value of the Long Exhale, the AWE Method includes (1) mindful Attention to something — a leaf, a sunset, a pet sleeping — and a deep breath, (2) Waiting, and then (3) a long Exhale. It can easily be used as a tool at any time.
In addition, exercise and other ways to regain body control are invaluable in reducing the hyperarousal that triggers anger. For example, a woman who lost her Mom in a Nursing Home to COVID-19 began to walk as much as she could. She would cry and at times talk to her dog, and somehow she came home calmer.
Anger as Protection From Helplessness
One of the impacts of trauma is the assault on our sense of control—our ability to be in charge of our lives, to protect ourselves, to keep our children safe, to find a way to repair a home, to save a buddy.
Often the rage we feel takes the form of self-blame—“How can a parent lose a child?” “If only..." "Why didn’t I..." "I should have...”
Joining with others who have suffered in a similar way often lightens the anger and reduces self-blame.
Whether on a Zoom Call, at a meeting, or in a therapy group, hearing others struggling in a similar way validates the pain and often directs us to what is possible. It reduces self-blame and helplessness. It gives us perspective to see a path.
Over many years of running groups for people suffering from the rage of losing a loved one to war, suicide, drugs, and natural disasters, I am amazed at the capacity of people in pain to transition to help each other with words and sentiments that no professional can offer. Far from helpless, they are invaluable in supporting each other.
Anger as a Mask for Depression
Depression is common in the aftermath of traumatic events because all trauma involves loss—be it loss of safety, loss of home, loss of loved ones, or loss of country. Depression is the most common disorder suffered in conjunction with PTSD.
Whereas common symptoms of depression are sadness, sleeping difficulties, concentration problems, and a lack of interest in former pleasures, depression for some, particularly for men, is often masked by anger, irritability, risky behavior, somatic complaints, and domestic problems.
Common to veterans who convince themselves that to stay angry is to stay loyal, and to parents whose anger is fueled by the injustice of a child’s stolen life, it is both understandable and emotionally exhausting.
Often the pain is so well masked by anger, that people are unaware of how much they are suffering.
Being aware of this connection can be lifesaving.
Seeking help and having a place to dare to bring up the pain is crucial.
As one angry First Responder shared in a group,“I’m afraid if I start crying, I’ll never stop.”
Connection as a Dwelling Place for Pain
People heal in their own way and their own time and benefit greatly from connection—a dwelling place for their pain.
Some begin to use religion, the warmth of a partner or friend, or the power of a cause to redirect their anger.
All trauma involves loss and a crisis of self that leaves us trying to hold on by any means.
Often we grasp at anger to shield ourselves from the pain, to lessen our terror, to hide our tears, or to feel less helpless. You are not alone. There are other ways forward.
Go Forward With Love, Remembrance, and Connections.