Anger can be part of a survivor’s response to trauma. Anger can be considered as part of the survival response in human beings. Anger helps us cope with stressors by giving us energy to move forward. Yet anger can cause major problems in the personal lives of those who have experienced trauma and PTSD.
Why Is Anger a Common Response to Trauma?
When faced with extreme threat, people often respond with anger. Anger can help a person survive by shifting their focus and action toward survival. You may have seen this in animals under threat.
Anger is also a common response to events that seem unfair. Research shows that anger can be associated with being betrayed by others 1, 2. This may be most often seen in cases of trauma that involve exploitation or violence.
The trauma in early childhood, may affect how well the survivor learns to manage their emotions. Problems in this area lead to frequent outbursts of extreme emotions, including anger and rage.
How Can Anger After a Trauma Become a Problem?
In people with PTSD, the anger response to threat can become “stuck.” It can generalise to all stress. If you have PTSD, you may be more likely to react to any stress as if your life or self were threatened.
Irritability and anger in those with PTSD can create serious problems in the workplace, family and in educational life. Often PTSD sufferers with anger do not feel like they fit in 3
Researchers 4 have broken down posttraumatic anger into three domains. These three areas can help us to understand how someone with PTSD might react with anger, even in situations that aren’t life-threatening:
Domains of anger
Our thinking and beliefs can be affected by trauma. We can become less trusting, more suspicious and our attention shifts to things we perceive as threating. A person with PTSD may think or believe that threat is all around, even when this is not true. He or she may not be fully aware of these thoughts and beliefs.
Some common thoughts of people with PTSD are:
“You can’t trust anyone.”
“I have to be in control, all the time.”
“Everyone is out for themselves.”
“People don’t care about others.”
Anger is marked by particularly body reactions. The systems most closely linked to survival are activated. The heart, circulation, hormonal, muscles, and emotional areas of the brain. If you have PTSD, this higher level of physical and emotional tension can become the norm. That means the emotional and physical feelings of anger are more intense.
People with PTSD, describe feeling on edge, keyed up, or irritable. They feel easily provoked. For some this high level of arousal may cause them to seek out situations that require alertness and defence against danger. Others may use alcohol or drugs to reduce the level of tension.
Behavioural changes such as increases in impulsive reactions, verbal aggression, physical
confrontation, and indirect expressions of anger
Many trauma survivors, especially those who went through trauma at a young age, never learn how to manage feeling threatened. They may adhere to the adage that the best form of defence is attack. They may be impulsive, acting before they think. They may not be able to use other responses that could be more positive.
Some of the indirect expression of anger may include complaining, being late or doing a poor job on purpose. Even spiteful acts. When the anger is turned inwards self-blame, or even self-injury may result.
How Can You Get Help with Anger?
Therapies such as Cognitive Processing Therapy are shown to reduce the symptoms of PTSD including anger. At the Centre for Clinical Psychology, we focus on evidence-based therapy for trauma and PTSD to resolve anger.
In addition, specific anger management treatment, for problems with arousal, behaviour, and beliefs can be used to help. Cognitive-behavioural treatment (CBT) uses many techniques to manage these three problem areas.
There are many ways to help people with PTSD deal with the high levels of anger they may feel. Treatment of PTSD can also help with a range of other problems besides the anger. Treatment of anger problems alone can also help. Treatment aims to help with anger through improving your sense of flexibility and control.
3 Rachel L. Martin, Claire Houtsma, AnnaBelle O. Bryan, Craig J. Bryan, Bradley A. Green & Michael D. Anestis (2017) The Impact of Aggression on the Relationship Between Betrayal and Belongingness Among U.S. Military Personnel, Military Psychology, 29:4, 271-282, DOI: 10.1037/mil0000160
4 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.