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Taming the Fire: Trauma and Anger

Part III of a Six-part Trauma Series. Trigger warning: This is a difficult topic. Some examples of traumas will be eluded to without details in order to set a scene for clarity and relatability.

Part II of this series, Trauma and Depression: The Other Side of the Mountain, can be found on aplaceofhope.com blog.

Part I of this series, What Trauma Is and Is Not, can be found on aplaceofhope.com blog.


Ever since your trauma, you find yourself feeling so angry. Everything bugs you for no real reason you can see. The thoughts running through your mind surprise you. Nothing is enjoyable. It feels as if the universe and everything in it has conspired against you. 

No one understands. People keep checking on you. They ask you if you are mad. Of course, you say no because you know there is no logical reason to be angry. They do not believe your answer because everything in your tone and body language says otherwise. You know this, but there are just no words for what is happening. You wish they would stop asking already because the questions are no longer about “the incident,” or “the trauma,” but about you. You have begun to wonder if you are broken beyond repair and the futility of it all fuels the volcano within. Will the cycle ever end?

Remember how trauma was described in the first edition in this series: 

“A very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems, usually for a long time. It can be helpful to think of trauma as a sort of spectrum, ranging from unpleasant surprises on one end to near-death experiences on the other.” (Emphasis added)

No one asks for a trauma. Even if you are intentionally acting in a risky manner, it is highly doubtful the results of trauma were what you intended to accomplish. Trauma is an interruption, an abrupt and jagged curve in the road. It affects every single aspect of life; mind, body, spirit, and social realms. 

The initial distress of a trauma may be over. The perpetrator was caught. The compensation money has been deposited. Your body has healed. You came clean about your part in it and everyone rallied around you with support when you needed it most. You may even believe that God was with you and “it was all for a reason.” No matter what the situation, at one point, you were headed down Road A and trauma came along and, without your permission, flung you to Road Z. Your boundaries were crossed, and the outcome was a whole lot of unfairness. Rest assured, the absolute reasonable and correct response to injustice and boundary crossing is anger.

Really? You sure?

Yes. Really. I am sure.

This may sound wrong to some of you. Many people have been taught that anger is wrong and “mean”. This is simply untrue. Anger is a healthy emotion. The problem often arises when anger, aggression, and rage are confused for each other.

Our emotions are part of an intricate, brain-based signal system that runs on rules and algorithms, often outside of our awareness.  Anger is an emotion that supplies us with heat and energy to propel us toward keeping ourselves safe, speaking the truth, and striving for justice. We know when overt actions occur, someone hits us or takes something of ours, anger is appropriate. When it becomes more subtle, when, “they didn’t mean to crash into me on the freeway,” our logical mind may tell us a story to keep us in social equilibrium. However, our much more “feely” right brain will still know that a rule was violated, and the emotion of anger will be triggered accordingly. This is why you do not know why you feel as you do sometimes.

As mentioned, anger is not to be mistaken for aggression or rage. To understand the difference, consider the following chart:

Emotion Emotion Self-talk Emotion Action
Anger “This is unfair. It needs to change” (Firm, heated, but not disrespectful or harmful. You can think and make a plan) Firm voice, persistent. Willing to persist from different directions until heard. Easier to lay down boundaries. Thoughts are action/solution focused. 

Aggression

“This is unfair. Someone needs to pay and I’m going to make it happen” (Heated, loud, distrusting, disrespectful) Pushes you to prod and poke until you hurt the other side. Yelling, insulting, intimidating, withdrawal of affection. Thoughts are focused on punishment.
Rage “AAARRRGG!!” (Incoherent, irrational, loud) Yelling, hitting, throwing, breaking things, bailing on others. Not controllable without outside help. Thinking is usually offline.

Anger is a normal and proper response to trauma. However, if not properly vented or addressed, it can fester and grow, leading to aggression or rage. If you have struggled with anger and it feels as if it is becoming a wildfire, here are some things you can try:

Give Yourself Space to Tell (or Show) the Truth. Undoubtedly, there are aspects of your traumatic experience that feel unfair and/or violating. You have a right to those feelings. It is important to express them in a healthy manner. Everyone processes differently. Some people need to tell their story over and over again until the brain is satisfied it has worked out all the details. Other people feel better if they act out their feelings (throwing ice cubes in the bathtub, chopping wood, smacking balls at the batting range, and so on). Others feel best if they take their tragedy and morph it into something useful to others. Whatever method works best for you, find a way to speak or act your truth. Start with God, the Universe, a pet, a journal, or a trusted and safe friend. Don’t lock it up inside.

Know Your Temperature. Anger carries heat and energy with it. This makes it easy to notice if you pay attention. On a piece of paper, write a line and put numbers one through ten. One indicates complete calm and happiness and ten is rage. At each one or two points, write down a personal experience that correlates to that place on the line. Perhaps one would be when you were lying on the beach in Maui. Four might be when that person cut you off on the freeway. Seven could be when your mother said she was not coming to your wedding.  Perhaps the angriest you have been was when your significant other left you. That might be your ten. Whatever it is, notice the types of thoughts and body sensations you have at each point along the way. Then, find a way to check in with yourself a few times a day to measure where your anger meter is. If it is rising, stop and spend some time speaking truth or self-soothing until you are calm and in control of your thoughts and actions.

Opposite Action. Don’t make things worse. Once you have decided that a given episode of anger is not about the present moment, you need to override your emotions with a decision. Decide how you want to behave and do that, even if your anger tells you otherwise. It is easiest and most effective to act opposite to the emotion. Perhaps you are having a particularly rough day and your sister is twenty minutes late. Suppose your trauma occurred when you were waiting for a friend who was late. You realize that the intensity of your anger is coming from the trauma and is out-of-proportion to the current situation because your sister is rarely late and always apologetic. You decide that when you see her, you will smile, listen carefully to what happened, and give her a hug (when, really, you want to scream, throw things, and chase her out of the room). This takes strength, but after a few practice runs, it will not only be easier, you will feel more powerful and in control.

As with the above example, the taming of the fire of anger (keeping it anger rather than allowing it to grow into aggression or rage) produces a feeling of great empowerment. Anger is helpful and healthy. Attempting to stoke it or quench it will only result in physical illness, chronic irritation, or other unhealthy response. You are not bad because you are angry. God is not mad at you for being angry at the trauma. God can weave whatever we give Him into a beautiful tapestry, but He knows that the particular thread of trauma itself is unpleasant. If you struggle with chronic anger, you need not suffer alone. There are many professional anger management treatment programs like the one at The Center • A Place of HOPE. Find a trauma survivor support group. If that does not sound like enough, then consider a call to The Center for information on its trauma recovery program. 

Written by Hannah Smith, MA LMHC CGP, Group Therapy Training & Curriculum Consultant for The Center ● A Place of Hope. As a Neuroscience-informed, Licensed Therapist and International Board-certified Group Psychotherapist, Hannah’s passion is to see people reach their potential and find lasting, positive change. The Center is located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.

The Center • A Place of HOPE specializes in the treatment of depression and has been voted a Top 10 U.S. Depressions Treatment Center.  We use a whole-person approach that allows you to discover what is truly going on in your mind, body, and spirit. Contact us today at 1-888-771-5166 and begin the healing process.

A Cleanse and Detox Protocol that Addresses Depression

Your body has multiple organs and systems that work together to filter and flush toxins out of your body.  The liver, kidneys, lymphatic system, lungs, and skin can become overwhelmed by the large amounts of toxins in our diets. Not to mention daily environmental factors we encounter. 

Unless we are very intentional about diet and lifestyle, there’s a good chance we are not supporting these organs and systems with the nutrition and activities they need to stay in tip-top shape.

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, when we work with a new client who is struggling with depression, we often recommend a three-week protocol designed to cleanse and detox the body. The protocol incorporates detox agents, dietary changes, and actions that support the body in performing at maximum capacity and work to eliminate problem-causing toxins that are affecting health and mood.  Below is the recommended protocol.

Look to incorporate detox agents into your daily routine.  Each day, do at least two of these: 

  • Drink a cup of dandelion root tea in the morning and another one in the afternoon.
  • Take 500 mg of N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) twice a day.
  • Take 300 mg of milk thistle (extracted from the fruit or seed, not the leaf, and standardized to 70 to 80 percent of the active ingredient silymarin).

These are dietary changes that will assist in supporting your body.  

  • Eliminate all alcohol, soda, energy drinks, coffee, and juices or teas with added sugar.
  • Avoid all candy and other sweets.
  • Drink two cups or more of fresh-pressed vegetable juice every day.
    Limit animal products; eat no more than six ounces of animal flesh a day.
    Avoid all dairy products except for butter.
  • Focus on whole foods (whatever you can buy in the produce section).
  • Drink at least two liters of water a day.  

It is important to move the blood and lymphatics.  Each day, do at least two of the following: 

  • Dry skin brushing, which involves brushing your skin with a soft brush prior to a bath or shower. This provides gentle exfoliation, boosts circulation, and encourages new cell growth.
  • Spend time in a sauna, then follow up with a cold rinse for ninety seconds or less. (I recommend choosing this at least three times a week.)
  • Exercise for at least twenty to thirty minutes at a time. Exercise boosts circulation through the body, which helps flush toxins out.  

Now, we must talk about sleep!  Get at least seven and a half hours of sleep a night. This will help you feel rested and less stressed.  Sleep reduces inflammation so the body can function at its best.

In addition to helping your body get rid of built-up toxins, this plan will also eliminate foods that are common causes of food sensitivities and inflammation in the body.  After following this protocol for three weeks, you are in the perfect position to slowly reintroduce common problem foods back into your diet, paying close attention to any reactions you may be having.

Pick one of the foods that was eliminated, and eat it twice a day for two days. Bread is a good example.  Be sure to keep a journal and write down any differences you notice in your body, energy, or mood. Make a note if you feel more depressed, have headaches or joint pain, or feel bloated. Also, notate if you are experiencing brain fog or have trouble concentrating. 

If your body responds negatively to the food item you have reintroduced, remove it again from your diet. Wait a few days, then reintroduce a different food and pay attention to how your body responds.

Whether you have gluten sensitivities or not, when it comes to managing your mood, clean eating is going to make a major difference.

The Center • A Place of HOPE specializes in the treatment of depression and has been voted a Top 10 U.S. Depressions Treatment Center.  We use a whole-person approach that allows you to discover what is truly going on in your mind, body, and spirit. Contact us today at 1-888-771-5166 and begin the healing process.

Be Aware of Life’s Challenges

As you work towards becoming stronger and more resilient in areas of your life, it’s important that you remember O’Toole’s Law.  Simply states, O’Toole’s Law says that Murphy was an optimist.  If something can go wrong with Murphy’s Law, it will go ballistic with O’Toole’s!  With that inescapable truth in mind, here are four areas where you will need to be particularly vigilant in the days ahead to ward off emotional exhaustion and stay strong.

Be alert to ordinary, expected life events.  None of us can escape these.  They are the stuff life is made of: high school, trade school, and college graduations, moving across the street or across the world, retiring, getting a promotion, making new friends, or trying to fit into a new neighborhood.  Anticipate these events as best you can. If you do not have a plan to accept them in the normal course of living, any one of them could throw you for a loop.

Be alert to the probability of unexpected life events.  These are the shocks and sorrows of life.  The death of a spouse or a child; the tragedy of an automobile accident; getting a call in the middle of the night informing you your best friend has suffered a massive heart attack.  These are really tough times. To be strong is to prepare yourself for these sudden events by building a strong foundation faith in God and in his ability to see you through. With God-based courage, you can face the ups and downs of life and remain strong.  The hard times will not destroy you or drive you into prolonged depression and despair.

Be alert to ongoing events that can drive you crazy.  These can be the everyday emotional killers — like the dog next store that barks endlessly, the ongoing skirmishes with a spouse, the quarrels with our kids.  You may be caring for an aged parent who lingers on in poor health, sapping you financially and emotionally. It could be the sheer boredom with a career that’s going nowhere, pressures at work, or unresolved issues with an ex-spouse.  

Events such as these tend to have a cumulative effect. If we do not recognize them and deal with them as emotionally health persons, they won’t be easily resolved.  As they weigh us down, we may feel as if we’ve been ground down to almost nothing. Yet to accept the unacceptable with courage and good humor is one of the ways you can regain control of your life.  In God’s strength you can be strong in even these most difficult daily situations.

Be alert to stress born of your own personality traits.  Much of your stress is actually related to how you are wired.  If you are a perfectionist, life is going to be stressful. In fact, it may border paralysis, with that feeling that you’re never quite up to par and continually comparing yourself to others.  If you feel insecure, lack self-worth, and have an overwhelming sense that people are out to get you, you will often allow stress to get the better of you, and it invariably will steer you toward emotional exhaustion.  

When, however, you learn to roll with the punches, laugh at our world, and not take yourself too seriously, then what are stressors to others will become little more than annoyances to you.  Can you make huge changes in your personality? Probably not. That’s why your best solution is to know yourself, be aware of your challenges, and let life be your wise teacher as you anticipate future events.  

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, emotional exhaustion, anxiety or disordered eating, The Center • A Place of HOPE is here to help.  Contact us today at 1-888-771-5166 and begin the healing process.