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.