Could Misplaced Anger be a Sign of Healing?
We often view anger as an unhealthy emotional response to deeper, underlying issues. If a man yells at his girlfriend for ‘flirting’ with another man, for example, he may be expressing deep-seated insecurities in an impulsive way, falling back on rage because hurt (emotional vulnerability) may be too difficult to express. If a mother slaps her son after he runs into the street without looking, it is often because her underlying fear (maybe even self-disgust) is coming out sideways. We often use anger to mask other emotions, usually because it is easier to yell, lash out, and storm off than it is to calmly face and work through our deeper issues.
Anger and Trauma Recovery
In the realm of trauma recovery, however, anger can be used proactively. In many cases, in fact, anger is utilized as an important part of the healing process. In order for anger to be beneficial, it is important that differing types of anger are adequately identified. While some anger can be traced back to early developmental changes (such as neglect or abandonment during childhood), some anger is generated solely by cognitive limitations (such as a low frustration tolerance or genetic rageaholism). Other anger becomes stuck somewhere in the nervous system after an individual undergoes a particularly traumatic event. This type of anger is often referred to as a ‘fight response’ or ‘flash rage’. In healing from trauma, it is crucial that the anger one is experiencing is traced back to its origin. Anger that is based on distorted thinking will essentially dissipate once healthy and rational thought patterns have been restored. On the other hand, anger that is lodged deep within the nervous system will prove to be an important doorway for trauma recovery.
PTSD Recovery – Fight, Flight, and Freeze
In most instances, individuals who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder will experience a host of fear-based symptoms, such as flashbacks, nightmares, and hyperarousal. Hyperarousal is part of the ‘flight’ response to perceived danger – the nervous system is flooded with fear, and the fear triggers a strong need to hide, escape, or flee. Those who are afflicted with PTSD will also often feel an initial state of helplessness and numbness – the ‘freeze’ response to high-stress situations. Yes, the flight and freeze responses are often present by way of hyperarousal and passivity – but what about the fight response to emotional stress? What about the innate need to defend oneself? To push back, dispute, and resolve?
Peter Levine, the psychologist who first developed Somatic Experiencing, believes that those who suffer significant trauma will subconsciously bury the ‘fight’ response somewhere deep within the nervous system as the trauma occurs. Why? As civilized human beings, we need to experience our inherent responses to life-threatening danger in a safe context – a controlled environment in which we can act these responses out, ultimately bringing them to resolution. The neocortex (the part of the brain that rationalizes, weighs out consequences, and makes us human rather than animal), has been trained to bury animalistic trauma responses (responses that may be frowned upon by society). Rather than burst out in fits of uncontrolled rage, we shut down. We become immobile, and withdraw socially. When we internalize anger by hiding is away or making it with introversion and detachment, we are not eradicating – it resides deep within us, waiting for the perfect opportunity to surface.
Bursts of Rage – Anger That Heals
Expressing anger is a natural and healthy response to unresolved trauma and PTSD, and has been shown to facilitate the healing process. Of course, anger itself does not resolve anything – when an traumatized individual expresses rage after a prolonged period of objectivity, it will be much like a young child throwing a temper tantrum. The anger will be misplaced, and will erupt from deep within – from a place that has been stifled and denied since the trauma first occurred. So why is anger a good thing? It is an indication that the afflicted individual is truly ready to begin the haling process. Once anger has surfaced, it can be adequately identified and worked through. Anger associated with trauma can be thought of as a sign of emotional thawing; an individual is becoming less frozen in time, and painful memories are coming close enough to the surface to be caught, examined, and eventually resolved. It is also an indication that the vital sense of self which was inevitably damaged during the trauma is beginning to reappear or redevelop.
Of course, we cannot move through life erupting like volcanos and blaming our enraged explosions on the healing process. We must take responsibility for our own recovery, and dislodge the anger from our nervous systems with the help of an experienced professional. For more information on anger and its relation to PTSD recovery, please contact us today.