Updated: Feb 3
Trauma and Anger
Thankfully there has been a lot more research and general awareness about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in recent years. The once stereotyped image of a shaking war-veteran has been adjusted and broadened to people who suffer from generally suffer from stress related to traumatic experiences from the past. We can experience a whole range of different emotions after undergoing something traumatic – which is completely understandable. Sometimes those feelings may dissipate after a few weeks, however for some of us, deeply distressing images and flashbacks could haunt us long after an incident has happened.
There are different types of PTSD; delayed-onset, complex PTSD and birth trauma. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to open-up about experiencing the symptoms of PTSD because we are lucky enough to be surrounded by expert Job’s worth’s who accuse us of ‘dwelling on the past’ or ‘not letting go’ – as if we even have a choice in the matter! I know for a fact that if I could willingly choose to experience PTSD I would swiftly opt out of that nightmare, thanks.
Some of the most common symptoms of PTSD are flashbacks, nightmares, reminders of the experience (a symbol) and even physical aches and pains (including nausea, trembling and lack of sleep). What we don’t seem to readily acknowledge is the deeply-rooted weed that is anger. Understandably, PTSD is anxiety-driven and can trigger that fight-or-flight mechanism which can leave us feeling alert, irritable, frustrated, aggressive, panicky, jumpy and angry. Anger and PTSD share both a whimsical romantic love for each other as well as that stagnant toxic relationship that comes from aging-unhappiness – a bit like Marie and Frank Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond.
Following the recent wars in the Middle East, there has been an increase in accumulated publicity around PTSD. It has been reported of the once kind and empathic souls returned back from service in Afghanistan bitter, angry and even physically aggressive to their loved ones. There have even been reports of some veterans murdering family members too. So, clearly this is an avenue that needs research and support! Although this was met with shocked reactions from the public, the relationship between PTSD and anger has actually been studied for a long period of time. When someone is experiencing the effects of trauma in the present moment, it can be harrowing and leave you feeling entirely helpless. Of course, our natural fight or flight instincts kick-in when we are feeling anxious. With this in mind, how are we supposed to flee our fears if it feels like our thoughts are our worst enemy? For some survivors the only thing they feel that they can do is stand and fight.
At its root, PTSD is an anxiety disorder - anxiety is a response to acute fear and fear can trigger panic attacks and aggression.
PTSD and our loved ones
The difficulty with PTSD is that it can be difficult to see the woods from the trees in moments of acute distress. It can deter other people from supporting us, especially if we are exhibiting fear through anger. When our anger spins out of control, we sometimes do things that we otherwise would never do, which mostly leaves just feeling utterly helpless and alone.
Research shows that it is considered commonplace for army veterans to be freely asked by civilians to re-tell their worst and most graphic experiences. How is this in any way going to help the survivor overcome the trauma that they are still living? Yes, it could be that a loved one is simply trying to be supportive (without fully understanding the severity of the trauma) by asking the survivor to talk about it. However, at the same time, if it is causing deep distress, why press someone to relive it just because it makes an exciting or sensational story? There needs to be more of a compassionate ethos surrounding the treatment of PTSD survivors as a lot of their feelings are out of their control - which is why anger plays a recurring role in expression of fear.
Anger as a spectrum
Anger is a spectrum of external expression of frustration or an internalisation of fear, it is complex and not easily understood either. For example, we might be feeling anger after being bullied at work. Our initial feeling is generally anger towards the person who bullied us, but you could also feel angry about not feeling able to freely express how you choose to react or defend yourself. Some people might feel like their anger is unacceptable, or they are unable to express it properly.
Child abuse survivors may have feeling of rage towards their abuser, as well as their protectors too. They may feel mixed feelings of love towards their parents, but anger for the abuse that they suffered.
A soldier returning from war might experience mixed emotions of pride for their service, but also frustration after turning-on the news and listening to politicians make fleeting decisions about war, without any first-hand experience. Having mixed emotions can make it difficult to cope with the root of the issue.
How Anger Affects Our Loved Ones
To be completely honest, not many of us would choose to spend an extended period of time with an angry person. It can be exhausting and hard to deal with unpredictable mood swings or outbursts. People with anger from PTSD can sometimes feel a mixture of shame and justification for their anger, which can make it difficult to articulate how they are feeling or what they want to. It also makes it harder to accept prescribed medication or suggested coping strategies when you don’t feel as if you should have to deal with something that has been inflicted on you. I mean, why should someone who has undergone trauma at the hands of someone else, then have to be the person to go through all the rigmarole of not only coping with it, but then overcoming it too? Although this is completely understandable, it is a double-edged sword as it can make it difficult to push past the distress you are feeling.
Other consequences from anger-related PTSD symptoms
Experiencing emotions that occur at the time of the trauma
Avoid things to do with the trauma
Difficulties maintaining relationships
Feeling isolated and alone
Physical aches and pains
Even though it can feel like your world is caving in and there isn’t any way out from the hell that you are experiencing, there are a number of effective strategies that can help to treat PTSD. There is help out there and believe it or not, PTSD is actually highly treatable.
Support Groups – Talking to other people who understand and have lived with similar experiences can be helpful. You never know, you might learn a thing or two from them and it can help to have an empathetic companion.
Prescribed medication – Through speaking to your doctor, you might find that they suggest some medication to help ease the symptoms of anxiety or distress. This can help to lose some of the confusion of conflicting extreme emotions that can cloud your vision and stop you from taking the initial steps to harness what you are experiencing.
Learn more about PTSD.
Therapy – Talking to someone who is trained and knowledgeable about what you are experiencing can help you control your emotions.
Socialising – Remind yourself you are loved and that you have people around you that want to help. Spending time with loved ones can help us feel less isolated.
There doesn’t necessarily have to be one route that works for you, mixing and matching different treatments may give you the perfect concoction for what will alleviate how you are feeling. It is important that you seek effective treatment if you are suffering from PTSD and anger-related issues. It is understandable as there are often deep feelings of injustice for the trauma we have suffered, however if we can use strategies that will help manage those emotions, why not try them? Reach out and seek help, you are not alone in this.
Jimi D Katsis is a Bristol based consultant psychotherapist at jimikatsis.com specialising in recovery from trauma, depression, and anxiety