What is anger? How can those recovering from trauma use anger proactively as part of the healing process? How can we distinguish between anger related to developmental challenges (for example anger due to abandonment as a child), versus anger lodged in the nervous system after an impactful traumatic event (“fight response”, “flash rage”), versus anger generated by cognition (rageaholism, low frustration tolerance)?
I am still researching this subject, but what I have discovered so far is that anger is energy, or life force, but different moments of anger can have completely different origins. It is important to try to figure out the true origin of one’s anger because anger based on distorted thinking often will simply vanish into thin air as the thinking is adjusted, but anger stuck in the nervous system due to trauma is an important doorway into healing from trauma. One needs to be released; the other needs to be embraced.
Anger and Trauma
In my experience, anger that is coming up in relation to past trauma is like a tiny plant that needs nurturing. It is the beginning of a process of healing, a process of building back what was broken, of developing an innate sense of having human rights and starting to express one’s conviction around having human rights. It is an important doorway to expression about one’s feelings about the violations they experienced, and it is a component of the telling of one’s story. It is an access point to one’s trapped life force, one’s voice, and lost aspects of the self. It can be the path to soul retrieval, the restoration of one’s memories of their true nature, or the recovery of natural innate ways of being that they have been cut off from.
My Personal Experiences of Anger During PTSD – Fight, Flight and Freeze
I have been struggling with symptoms of PTSD for five years. In the beginning, I experienced no anger at all. I had symptoms of acute hyperarousal, a situation in which the nervous system is so flooded with fear, it’s like a tuning fork vibrating very strongly with the energy of fear. Hyperarousal is part of the “flight” response to danger, the fear is a stimulus to escape, be alert, find a way out, run, hide, evade.
I also was in a state of immobility, which is characterized by paralysis, catatonia, numbness, motionlessness, passivity and helplessness. Immobility is part of the “freeze” response to danger, the instinct to “play dead” until it has passed.
But what happened to the “fight” instinct? During the traumas I did have the instinct to try to stop the danger and I did feel some of the energy wanting to fight. But at some point I entered into only experiencing hyperarousal and immobility. Why did I not experience, over the months and years following the trauma, a continuation of this third response to danger, the instinct to defend, eliminate, change, solve, assert, rectify, force back, push away, stand one’s ground, conquer, destroy?
Neocortex as Jailer
What happened to that third response is it was buried. The “fight” was still inside me somewhere, but it was as if it was put into jail. According to Peter Levine, the psychologist who developed Somatic Experiencing and author of the book Waking the Tiger, all of these energies (fight, flight and freeze) need to be experienced in a safe context that brings them through to resolution, but because of how humans’ brains are wired, much of this energy, especially anger and aggression, becomes buried. The neocortex, the brain that “thinks” and rationalizes and makes us human rather than animal, has been well trained to be civilized and to run programs that are civilized, and we tend to settle into and rely on these programs to behave ourselves in society. Thank God for the neocortex, we don’t want everyone behaving like cave people again! Unfortunately, the proper, civilized neocortex creates a host of problems during the process of healing from trauma because of its efficiency in burying things.
Flash Rage “ROAR!”
In the year 2010, I began to experience what I call “flash rages.” This was anger that seemed like it was coming out of nowhere. It was as if there was a volcano underground but it only released small spurts of lava once in a while. The flash rages are animal-like. It almost feels like a lion that is suddenly growling and snarling and roaring wildly. In my case, mostly this was not expressed to others, it was just experienced alone or in my own mind. For example, in May 2010 I got really angry and kicked a cardboard box, spraining my foot. This was completely uncharacteristic behavior. In other words, before having PTSD I would not have done that. I would also associate this kind of anger with tantrums of a 2 to 3-year-old child.
First Vocalizations of “Fight” Response
In September 2010, I wrote in my journal that there had been a shift. With PTSD, the perception of reality gets changed drastically. Reality becomes completely full of triggers, or Things that are Dangerous. At a certain point the fight response kicks in and, like a faint light bulb turning on, one has the brand new insight that one can fight against the triggers and try to make them go away. This is the beginning emergence of a sense of self, of wanting to DO something about the trigger, wanting to be capable of making it go away, wanting to be assertive and proactive rather than passive and reactive. But the communication may be that of a 3 to 5-year-old child. For example, sudden outbursts of “I HATE YOU!” or “I HATE THAT!” This kind of expression doesn’t solve anything but it represents a breakthrough because it’s the first time the fight response forms a verbal expression to another person. However, the underlying feeling is still mostly of helplessness and passivity.
More Regular Perceptions of Personal Rights
Later there was another shift. This was a shift into a feeling like I had the right to territory, boundaries, and space. This sense was more regular because it occurred perhaps 15% of the time, and the rest of the time there was the immobility response. Before this shift, the only response to invasions by triggers was immobility. So the light bulb was getting a tiny bit brighter and was staying on a little bit longer.
Unfortunately, if one’s context becomes traumatizing any progress of healing PTSD reverts back to the very beginning. My living situation became traumatizing from October of 2011 to the spring of 2012, so I had to go through the entire process of getting in touch with the anger of PTSD again over the summer. The reason it was too stressful to make any progress healing PTSD was because when I moved to New York City there was a problem with bedbugs where I was living and I spent a number of months “on the run” moving place to place to escape. Bedbugs actually can be really traumatizing; a friend even saw a sign for a bedbug support group near Grand Central station in Manhattan!
Anger that is associated with trauma is an indication of melting or thawing. It is a positive sign that the energy trapped during the traumatic experience is trying to find a way to be expressed, ultimately resolving itself. It is also a positive sign that one’s sense of self that was damaged during the trauma is growing back.
The anger associated with developmental or childhood trauma pretty much falls into the same category as the anger caught in PTSD, however the energies could be buried deeper than those of adulthood trauma, the memories are those of an infant or child and the process of healing could need to be adjusted to access these earlier times.
In conclusion, we can note that flash rage is characterized by:
- resulting from a traumatic experience(s)
- an indication of trapped life force
- an indication a need for self-expression, a need for developing communication skills
- should be embraced and nurtured
- an indication of moving upwards on the scale of how much one values their rights
- an indication of self-esteem
- an indication of a desire to move upwards on the scale of ones ability to defend their rights
- a healthy need to heal the “fight” energy inside
- part of one’s story that is healing when it is told and witnessed
- can be related to lost aspects of self that want to be found
- an indication of something becoming more intact that used to be more broken
- an indication of moving back up through the stages of human development that one regressed backwards through when traumatized
- the doorway into using many healing tools, for example Somatic Experiencing and art therapy.
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