Anger and Trauma

Anger and Trauma

If your son has gone through a traumatic experience, it is normal for him to become angry. In this article we’ll discuss some questions that parents often have about anger and trauma.

Why is anger a common response to trauma?

There are three likely reasons why anger is a common response to trauma. The first is that high levels of anger are related to a natural survival instinct. Anger helps people survive by mobilizing all of their attention, thought, brain energy, and action towards survival. These responses to extreme threat can become “stuck” in people with PTSD, so that they respond to minor, day-to-day problems as if they were life threatening.

The second reason why anger is a common response to trauma is that anger is a natural response to betrayal or losing basic trust in others. The third reason why anger is a common response is that in situations of early childhood abuse, the trauma and shock of the abuse can interfere with an individual’s ability to regulate emotions. This leads to frequent episodes of extreme or out of control emotions, including anger and rage.

How can post-traumatic anger become a problem?

Post-traumatic anger can become problematic through these three different components:

Arousal

When people feel anger, their cardiovascular, glandular, and brain systems associated with emotion and survival increase in activation, along with their muscle tension. For people with PTSD, this increased internal activation sometimes becomes set as the normal level of arousal. This can intensify the actual emotional and physical experience of anger. This can cause a person to feel frequently on-edge and irritable. It’s common for traumatized people to seek out situations that require them to stay alert and ward off potential danger. Conversely, they may use alcohol and drugs to reduce overall internal tension.

Behavior

Many who had to handle a threat aggressively in a self-protective way do not learn different ways of handling threat. Because of this, they often become stuck in their ways of reacting when they feel threatened. This is especially true of impulsive people. Extreme reactions suit extreme situations, but in everyday life, extreme reactions are not effective or healthy. Behavioral aggression may take many forms, including aggression toward others, passive-aggressive behavior, or self-aggression.

Thoughts and Beliefs

The thoughts or beliefs that people have to help them understand and make sense of their environment can often over-exaggerate threat. Often the individual is not fully aware of these thoughts and beliefs. These thoughts and beliefs cause the person to perceive more hostility, danger, or threat than others might feel is necessary.

How can individuals with post-traumatic anger get help?

In treatment, improving a person’s sense of flexibility and control is essential because it helps them not to feel re-traumatized by their own explosive or excessive responses to anger triggers. Helping people with their arousal, behavior, and thoughts/beliefs is very effective. 

For those with increased arousal, the goal of treatment is to help the person learn skills that will reduce overall arousal. Such skills include relaxation, self-hypnosis, and physical exercises that discharge tension. For behavior, the goal of treatment is to review a person’s most frequent ways of behaving under perceived threat or stress and help them expand the possible responses. More adaptive responses include taking a time out, writing thoughts down when angry, communicating in more verbal and assertive ways, and changing the pattern “act first, think later” to “think first, act later.” For thoughts/beliefs, individuals are given assistance in logging, monitoring, and becoming more aware of their own thoughts prior to becoming angry. They are additionally given alternative, more positive replacement thoughts for their negative thoughts.

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