“Is Anyone Else Angry?”
Trauma theorists tell us that while traumatic events are in themselves physically and emotionally assaultive, it is often the emotions suffered after the smoke clears and the media goes home that become painful and disruptive to our recovery. One of these is anger.
Anger in the aftermath of a traumatic event, be it the loss of a child, the destruction of one’s home, a life-threatening diagnosis or the sequel to combat stress is a common and complex response. It can be experienced as a physiological state, an emotion, a way of thinking, a behavioral response or a combination of these.
Understanding some of the feelings and dynamics that underscore anger after trauma may be an important step in your journey forward.
Anger as Residual of Fight/Flight Response
It is to our advantage that our biological arousal system goes into survivor mode in face of danger causing an increase in heart rate, rapid shallow breathing, cold sweats, tingling muscular tension and often-antagonistic behavior.
The problem is that when the danger has passed, our body often remains in a state of hyperarousal, leaving us reacting with anger to what would ordinarily be mildly distressing stimuli.
Because this is a physically driven anger, we need to work from the body out to bring it down. We need to re-set our body rhythms by moving, sleeping and eating well. Moving in any way (exercise, walking, re-building, cleaning, physically helping friends) is crucial.
One widow, who told me she was mad at God after 9/11, started walking and didn’t stop until the tears and rage had subsided.
Anger as Protection From Helplessness
Joining with others who have suffered in a similar way often lightens the anger. Hearing others struggling with impossible expectations often lifts the self-blame and directs us to what is possible. It does not take away the excruciating loss, but it gives us the perspective to see a path.
The parents of one of the children killed in the Newtown CT School Shooting, established a Facebook page called W.W.D.D.—What Would Daniel Do. It is a page that essentially reverses the sense of helplessness in face of random violence because–it is intended to inspire random acts of kindness.
Anger as a Mask for Depression
One firefighter who had lost many friends after 9/11 told me that he was so enraged with everyone that the only thing he could do was work on the pile until he dropped. He feared that if he let himself stop, we would begin to cry and fall apart.
With time, he told me that the only creature that he could show positive feelings to was his dog. What I came to understand was that it was the emotional connection with this pet that reduced his rage and gave him the courage to come for help, and eventually cry for those he had lost.
Anger as an Antidote to Loss
One heartbreaking solution to avoid grieving the loss of a loved one is to stay angry.
Common to veterans who convince themselves that to stay angry is to stay loyal, and to parents whose anger is fueled by the injustice of a child’s stolen life, it is both understandable and emotionally exhausting.
Often it is intended to keep others away as the pain is too great to bear or to share.
Often the world misunderstands that time doesn’t just heal; rather, people slowly heal in their own time.
Traumatic loss of any kind is a crisis of self that leaves us trying to hold on by any means. Often we grasp at anger to shield ourselves from the pain, to lessen our terror, and to hide our tears. When we are ready to look beyond it, we are often surprised. We don’t forget. We still have tears… but life seems possible.
Angry man photo available from Shutterstock
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Last reviewed: 22 Jan 2013