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Anger as a Trauma Response: Why it Happens and How to Manage
We need anger in order to be fully human. The key is expressing our anger in an ordered, healthy way.
At its most basic level, anger is an internal response to protect oneself against feelings of terror, anxiety, grief, or shame. Core wounds such as “I’m not good enough” or “I’m unlovable” are often at the root of our experiences with anger.
Lately I’ve received numerous emails from readers focusing on the same topic: anger as a response to trauma, and how to manage the emotion when it gets out of control. I’ve noticed a pattern to the messages I receive—and anger is a topic that comes up often this time of year, as the holidays fast approach. I suspect this is because the holidays tend to be very stressful for those in difficult relationships or who are recovering from trauma. Remaining in our “window of tolerance” can be particularly challenging during times of increased stress.
If you need extra support during the holidays, please contact me for more information about joining my secure peer-to-peer support group for Catholic female survivors of intimate partner violence, hosted by Hope’s Garden.
The window of tolerance is a concept originally developed by Dr. Dan Siegel to explain the sense of inner peace and calm within individuals—in other words, a regulated and balanced nervous system. This is the place where the Imago Dei—the true self, made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26-27)—takes the primary role within a person. When we’re operating within our true selves we can successfully cope with our emotions, no matter what those emotions may be.
However, for those of us who have suffered from trauma, it can be an immense challenge to remain in our window of tolerance, and we often enter a state of hyper-arousal (fight/flight), or hypo-arousal (freeze).
When you’ve been pushed past your point of toleration, your nervous system goes into overdrive (hyper-arousal). If this situation is sustained for too long, you’ll eventually move into hypo-arousal, with feelings of disassociation and numbness.
Quite often someone in a constant state of trauma will shift in and out of hypo- and hyper- arousal, which further adds to the trauma and confusion if they don’t understand why they’re reacting in such see-saw, chaotic ways.
If this describes you, don’t worry—you’re not crazy, nor are you alone.
Your nervous system is understandably dysregulated, and the key to healing is to slowly get it back on track in healthy ways. A trauma-informed coach or therapist, particularly one trained in IFS (Internal Family Systems), can help you learn how to moderate your nervous system. Courses such as the CHRIST Program from Hope’s Garden can further enhance your everyday skills to help you achieve, and remain, in your Christ-centered self.
For this article I want to focus on why anger shows up, and ways we can deal with emotions in a healthy way.
There are many instances, especially for those in traumatic situations, where anger is justified. It’s how we express our emotions that can be a problem, and for those of us enduring repeated or constant upheaval and stress, this can be a particular (and ongoing) challenge.
The first thing to remember is that anger is a part of ourselves that’s protecting us from a deeper emotion.
What is your anger part trying to tell you?
On the surface, you may be aware that you’re angry because your partner has yet again belittled you, barraged you with verbal abuse, sexually betrayed you, misused finances, or … well, fill in the blank. Being angry about such things is understandable, but if you find your anger is taking on a life of its own and hijacking your entire system, this indicates that something deeper is going on. You’ve moved out of your window of tolerance and into a state of nearly constant hyper-arousal. As long as you remain in that state, processing your trauma will be impossible.
What is your anger part trying to tell you? What’s the root cause of your dysregulation? Ask your angry part:
What do you need in order to calm down and express yourself in a healthy way?
What are you trying to protect me from?
The angry part of you is, in its essence, alerting you to the fact that your needs aren’t being met. For example, on the surface you could be angry because your partner yet again trampled all over your boundaries and refused to respect your efforts to avoid abuse. But what’s beyond the surface?
Through self-honesty and examination, we can often find a trail of unmet needs that can be tracked all the way back to our family of origin. Using the above example, a plausible scenario could be:
You feel angry because your spouse refuses to respect your boundaries (this is the trigger).
Below that trigger is the hurt at not feeling heard or loved by your partner.
Digging deeper, this is an accumulated wound from years of intimate partner neglect.
But going even further than that, you realize this wound of not being seen, heard, or respected by your intimate partner has its roots in childhood neglect—not being seen or heard by your parents, but instead having your needs ignored.
This is excruciatingly painful because it causes a self-lie to develop. These lies and self-gaslighting techniques most often take the form of thoughts such as: “At the core of who I am, I’m not good enough. If I was good enough, others would see me and respect me—and they would love me. But they don’t, so it must be my fault.”
These feelings of unworthiness and being unlovable cause deep, intense shame—a part of yourself that you want to keep buried because it’s too agonizing to feel.
From there, you can come to realize that your anger part, bubbling to the surface when your partner neglects or mistreats you, is actually trying to protect the more delicate and vulnerable parts of yourself—the feelings of being unworthy, unlovable, and filled with shame.
A trigger happens externally, whether real or (most often) perceived. Anger is the internal aspect. The trigger isn’t the cause of anger, even if it may seem to be— rather, anger is your personal reaction to the trigger.
Yet you can change your reactions, and help create a healthier balance within yourself, which may impact your outward relationships as well. Just keep in mind that you can’t change other people.
It’s often the case that modifying your own trauma responses won’t change the behavior of the other person. However, it will make toxic behavior easier to identify, and will help give you clarity on the next steps you need to take in order to enrich and fulfill your life.
Understanding your personal triggers; getting curious about the root causes of why certain issues dysregulate you more than others; loving the vulnerable parts of yourself that need healing, and nurturing those parts into wholeness—these are all crucial ways to heal. This awareness and integration will enable you to stay more grounded in your window of tolerance and help lower your hyper-arousal responses so you can better handle the stressful situations in your life.
Start by analyzing your anger. Curiosity is the first step toward healing and reintegration. Ask yourself what was happening within yourself, immediately before the point your anger part took over. Was a part of you feeling frustrated? Lonely? Unloved? Demeaned or dismissed?
Understand your triggers. Get curious about the root causes of your anger so you can heal the areas in your life that are still wounded.
Recognizing the warning signs of budding anger can help you avoid an explosion. These may include:
Feelings of shame or unworthiness
When you’re able to get in touch with the parts of yourself with unmet needs, you can then open the awareness of how those needs can be met and what steps to take next along your healing journey. Inviting Christ into your wounds, asking for the healing balm of His Divine Mercy to nourish the open places in your heart and soul, to replace shame with His precious love, are the ultimate ways to get back into, and remain, in your Imago Dei—your Christ-centered self, made in His very image and likeness.
“I sought the LORD, and He answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to Him, and be radiant; and your faces will never be ashamed.” (Ps. 34:4-5)
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