Why is anger a common response to trauma?
Anger is usually a central feature of a survivor’s response to trauma because it is a core component of the survival response in humans. Anger helps people cope with life’s adversities by providing us with increased energy to persist in the face of obstacles. However, uncontrolled anger can lead to a continued sense of being out of control of oneself and can create multiple problems in the personal lives of those who suffer from PTSD.
One theory of anger and trauma suggests that high levels of anger are related to a natural survival instinct. When initially confronted with extreme threat, anger is a normal response to terror, events that seem unfair, and feeling out of control or victimized. It can help a person survive by mobilizing all of his or her attention, thought, brain energy, and action toward survival. Recent research has shown that these responses to extreme threat can become “stuck” in persons with PTSD. This may lead to a survival mode response where the individual is more likely to react to situations with “full activation,” as if the circumstances were life threatening, or self-threatening. This automatic response of irritability and anger in individuals with PTSD can create serious problems in the workplace and in family life. It can also affect the individuals’ feelings about themselves and their roles in society.
Another line of research is revealing that anger can also be a normal response to betrayal or to losing basic trust in others, particularly in situations of interpersonal exploitation or violence.
Finally, in situations of early childhood abuse, the trauma and shock of the abuse has been shown to interfere with an individual’s ability to regulate emotions, which leads to frequent episodes of extreme or out of control emotions, including anger and rage.
How can posttraumatic anger become a problem?
Researchers have described three components of posttraumatic anger that can become maladaptive or interfere with one’s ability to adapt to current situations that do not involve extreme threat:
- Arousal : Anger is marked by the increased activation of the cardiovascular, glandular, and brain systems associated with emotion and survival. It is also marked by increased muscle tension. Sometimes with individuals who have PTSD, this increased internal activation can become reset as the normal level of arousal and can intensify the actual emotional and physical experience of anger. This can cause a person to feel frequently on-edge, keyed-up, or irritable and can cause a person to be more easily provoked. It is common for traumatized individuals to actually 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 : Often, the most effective way of dealing with extreme threat is to act aggressively, in a self-protective way. Additionally, many people who were traumatized at a relatively young age do not learn different ways of handling threat and tend to become stuck in their ways of reacting when they feel threatened. This is especially true of people who tend to be impulsive (who act before they think). Again, as stated above, while these strategies for dealing with threat can be adaptive in certain circumstances, individuals with PTSD can become stuck in using only one strategy when others would be more constructive. Behavioral aggression may take many forms, including aggression toward others, passive-aggressive behavior (e.g., complaining, “backstabbing,” deliberately being late or doing a poor job), or self-aggression (self-destructive activities, self-blame, being chronically hard on oneself, self-injury).
- Thoughts and Beliefs : The thoughts or beliefs that people have to help them understand and make sense of their environment can often overexaggerate threat. Often the individual is not fully aware of these thoughts and beliefs, but they cause the person to perceive more hostility, danger, or threat than others might feel is necessary.
For example, a combat veteran may become angry when others around him (wife, children, coworkers) don’t “follow the rules.” The strength of his belief is actually related to how important it was for him to follow rules during the war in order to prevent deaths. Often, traumatized persons are not aware of the way their beliefs are related to past trauma. For instance, by acting inflexibly toward others because of their need to control their environment, they can provoke others into becoming hostile, which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Common thoughts people with PTSD have include: “You can’t trust anyone,” “If I got out of control, it would be horrible/life-threatening/intolerable,” “After all I’ve been through, I deserve to be treated better than this,” and “Others are out to get me, or won’t protect me, in some way.”
How can individuals with posttraumatic anger get help?
In anger management treatment, arousal, behavior, and thoughts/beliefs are all addressed in different ways. Cognitive-behavioral treatment, a commonly utilized therapy that shows positive results when used to address anger, applies many techniques to manage these three anger components:
- For 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 him or her to expand the possible responses. More adaptive responses include taking a time out; writing thoughts down when angry; communicating in more verbal, 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 (e.g., “Even if I am out of control, I won’t be threatened in this situation,” or “Others do not have to be perfect in order for me to survive/be comfortable”). Individuals often role-play situations in therapy so they can practice recognizing their anger-arousing thoughts and applying more positive thoughts.
There are many strategies for helping individuals with PTSD deal with the frequent increase of anger they are likely to experience. Most individuals have a combination of the three anger components listed above, and treatment aims to help with all aspects of anger. One important goal of treatment is to improve a person’s sense of flexibility and control so that he or she does not feel re-traumatized by his or her own explosive or excessive responses to anger triggers. Treatment is also meant to have a positive impact on personal and work relationships.
Chemtob, C.M., Novaco, R.W., Hamada, R.S., Gross, D.M., & Smith, G. (1997). Anger regulation deficits in combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 10(1), 17-35.
Source: National Center for PTSD
Updated October 2003