There is a magical power in anger. It pulsates, throbs in my veins. I feel so strong, powerful and I could strangle you with my pinkie.
“What is this I’m feeling? It’s like I can fly. Not fly. Punch. Holes in the universe. What’s going on?”
Literally this is what I asked my therapist as she unbuttoned the lid that was keeping me locked in my own personal hell. The place I’d been in since childhood, as the machine guns fired and the screams echoed, I had remained static: numb. This feeling that came from somewhere I had no idea I possessed gave me a strength I equally did not know I possessed. It ripped through my body and brain like an electric charge, filling my mind with an energy that seemed to be at once dangerous and beautiful.
Anger gives us the ability to cope with life’s stresses by giving us an energy to keep going no matter what: pain, terror… nothing can stand the force of rage and anger. Anger hones our focus entirely on survival. Whatever “survival” means at that moment in time, and here’s where it gets a bit sticky: we ain’t thinking when we are angry. In fact our brain is in a sewer somewhere doing the back stroke singing “Oh diddly dooh we are all going to die…”
And that right there is the problem. If our reaction to stress is to go to anger and rage there is no thinking brain to control the excesses, when we flip to anger and frustration as an automatic PTSD reaction things can go pear shaped in a heart beat. Researchers have studied Anger & PTSD, in so doing they have identified three factors:
- Arousal: a constant state for some of us it engages our hearts, circulation, glands and brain, our muscles are tense. For a lot of us this state is our “normal” which means that our emotional and physical experiences of anger are intense, we feel constantly on edge, keyed up and irritable. It becomes so much our norm that we push situations and reactions to remain there without ever consciously realizing that we are the ones inflaming situations to remain in this state. To switch it off? Alcohol and drugs are, all to often, the avenues of choice.
- Behaviour: most of us with PTSD have one response to threat. Aggressive, impulsive, attack mode. When we are threatened we act out, often ferociously. Brian often jokes that I have a kill switch. I like to think I’ve developed three switches: ignore, fight, walk away.
- Thoughts and Beliefs: kids and spouses of a combat veteran will often talk about how they have to “follow the rules” at home, not to do so will enrage their combat veteran. When he/she was in the war zone not following the rules got somebody killed. It takes a lot of work to create a space for the combat veteran to understand in their thoughts and beliefs that they are “safe”. The need to control our surroundings will never leave us, knowing this I no longer allow anybody into my space I do not like or trust.
Is ANGER always bad?
No, it isn’t. In fact ANGER is a very important emotion to feel and acknowledge. What is bad is when we allow anger to be destructive. What is the difference between constructive anger and destructive anger? The first one the plates don’t get smashed, the second they do.
What is responsible for our Anger Management Issues?
HYPOTHALAMIC-PITUITARY-ADRENAL or HPA System Programming
Sadly for those of us like me who were traumatized Zero to Seven years of age this damn thing is hardwired to activate our stress responses at a far lower frequency of external agitation than your normal Joe and Jane. We are literally hard wired to be hyper-vigilant and of course we suffer debilitating auto-immune conditions, migraines, allergies and chronic pain syndromes as a result. Deep joy. There’s a reason most doctors I know shake their heads and wonder that I’m still breathing at the ripe old age of 48.
The PREFRONTAL CORTEX gets by-passed when we are in a state of high alert and it is THAT which we must return the controls to. Without our prefrontal cortex we are stuck in our lizard brain reacting like a wounded beast. Plates will go smash, relationships will be destroyed and when we finally find our way through the haze the devastation we know only too well will greet us.
Soothing the Wounded Tiger Within
Self-soothing sounds like something a baby does. You’re right, it is. It’s something we teach babies, toddlers and children. It’s an important step in our development, it is why sleeping with your older child is destructive to their development: they aren’t being taught how to self-soothe and instead, hard wired to always look for Mummy/Daddy to do it for them. To my mind parents who fail to work with their children to learn the skills needed to self-soothe and be independent are the worst of humanity, people who like to “own” their children rather than create strong, successful humans they break them, nurture anxiety instead of calmness, pain instead of peace. No matter how many times I witness it, I am still horrified by it.
If you like me are stuck with a hard-wired HPA that is stuck in Full-Throttle it’s going to take a lot of patience and work to create new networks that click your brains networks back to the pre-frontal cortex. Think of it like a train track that is stuck and you’re in one of those cartoons desperately trying to save the train from being derailed… AGAIN.
To find a way through to calming the Tiger or fix the signal point on the track is an individual thing. I can’t give you, nor can anybody else, the magic formula. I can give you tips and point in the direction you could try and explain the why it might work and others can share their experiences with you. There’s no such thing as a miraculous cure.
To calm the AROUSAL responses Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help by teaching you the cues: the signals and thoughts that are real and are not real. Self-hypnosis and mindfulness are great tools, again ones that a good CBT therapist can teach you. Having somebody should “RELAX, JUST CALM DOWN AND RELAX!” is always super helpful too…. laughing. No, no that is probably the one thing other than handing you a loaded gun that is not helpful, yet how many do it? Honestly, if somebody in your life says this, push them away from you, lock the door and throw that key away.
When you know that you are triggered up the yazoo, you are in hyper-arousal state set rules for yourself. I have hard set rules that don’t always work as my fury burns for weeks when ignited.
- Take Time Out – walk away, move the keyboard into the freezer, whatever it takes, but take time away from the stressor
- Keep a journal that you either draw or write in when angry
- Talk to somebody you trust, I have friends from all over the world who call me when they’ve just had all they can take. They cry, they scream, they swear and they yell. I listen and I understand. Once the rage and storm is spent, the conversation is forgotten and we move on. Have somebody like that in your life with the memory of a goldfish, like me.
- Acknowledge that historically you have “acted first, thought about it later”, switch that to “Think first, Act Later”: remembering that in a hyperarousal state you CAN’T think, so you have to find a way for your brain to work again before anything can be done.
This is the hardest bit: recognizing the negative thought and voices that led you to this state.
This is where the serious work with a therapist has to be done. There is buggar all point going to these sessions unless you bring the bad, the ugly and the festering with you. It isn’t a beauty parade or a popularity contest. For the therapist to help you, honesty and straight up no BS is required or don’t bother. When I teach I always mention the nasty, negative voice in our heads and ask my students to acknowledge it and to share what it is saying to them. For my students to be creative and free, they must first be free of that internal Gollum who would keep them trapped and fearful.
As most of you know who read my blogs there is a fantastic private group called Life After PTSD on Facebook which I started but is now mentored and managed by a group of incredibly talented, experienced peer supporters from around the globe and across all professions, in that group we regularly share self-soothing skills that work and that don’t. We encourage folk who are finding it tough to go and post, yell, scream and all that in a safe space that is supported and where we can provide healthy soothing techniques or share our own experiences as a way through. Knowing that you are not some awful monster, as one friend of mine put it “I feel like I’m two people, and the angry one is … awful. You wouldn’t like me.” The truth is he is the same person angry and not angry, and I love him just as much calm as I do when he’s ready to throat punch the next human who crosses him because I see straight through it. Surround yourself with people who love, care and see through your anger/rage moments, don’t hold it against you and once the tempest is passed, leave it in the past.