Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Understanding Anger in the Aftermath of Trauma and Disaster

“Is Anyone Else Angry?”

anger and traumaTrauma theorists tell us that while traumatic events are in themselves physically and emotionally assaultive, it is often the emotions suffered after the smoke clears and the media goes home that become painful and disruptive to our recovery. One of these is anger.

Anger in the aftermath of a traumatic event, be it the loss of a child, the destruction of one’s home, a life-threatening diagnosis or the sequel to combat stress is a common and complex response. It can be experienced as a physiological state, an emotion, a way of thinking, a behavioral response or a combination of these.

  • You are not alone if you feel angry about what has happened.
  • Essentially you are suffering. The problem is that when anger persists–it obscures everything else.
  • The ability to make meaning of it and redirect it, keeps it from holding you back and taking more from you.

Understanding some of the feelings and dynamics that underscore anger after trauma may be an important step in your journey forward.

Anger as Residual of Fight/Flight Response

It is to our advantage that our biological arousal system goes into survivor mode in face of danger causing an increase in heart rate, rapid shallow breathing, cold sweats, tingling muscular tension and often-antagonistic behavior.

The problem is that when the danger has passed, our body often remains in a state of hyperarousal, leaving us reacting with anger to what would ordinarily be mildly distressing stimuli.

  • We blow up at the relatives who keep asking if everything is starting to get easier.
  • We storm off the line that feels too long at Starbucks.
  • We find ourselves fighting over everything with our partner.
  • We are driving faster and yelling more than usual.

Because this is a physically driven anger, we need to work from the body out to bring it down. We need to re-set our body rhythms by moving, sleeping and eating well. Moving in any way (exercise, walking, re-building, cleaning, physically helping friends) is crucial.

One widow, who told me she was mad at God after 9/11, started walking and didn’t stop until the tears and rage had subsided.

Anger as Protection From Helplessness

  • One of the assaults of trauma is the assault to our sense of control—our ability to be in charge of our lives, to protect ourselves, to keep our children safe, to find a way to repair a home, to save a buddy.
  • If we are wrapped in rage, we won’t have to feel shame or blame. We won’t have to accept the reality that a traumatic event is of one that is beyond our control to stop.

Joining with others who have suffered in a similar way often lightens the anger. Hearing others struggling with impossible expectations often lifts the self-blame and directs us to what is possible. It does not take away the excruciating loss, but it gives us the perspective to see a path.

The parents of one of the children killed in the Newtown CT School Shooting, established a Facebook page called W.W.D.D.—What Would Daniel Do. It is a page that essentially reverses the sense of helplessness in face of random violence because–it is intended to inspire random acts of kindness.

Anger as a Mask for Depression

  • Depression is very common in the aftermath of traumatic events because all trauma involves loss—be it loss of safety, loss of home, loss of loved ones or loss of country. Depression is the most common disorder suffered in conjunction with PTSD.
  • Whereas common symptoms for depression are sadness, sleeping difficulties, concentration problems and a lack of interest in former pleasures, depression in some, particularly men, is often masked by anger, irritability, risky behavior, somatic complaints and domestic problems.
  • Often the pain is so well masked that the men and the people who love them are unaware of how much they are suffering.
  • Being aware of this connection can be lifesaving.

One firefighter who had lost many friends after 9/11 told me that he was so enraged with everyone that the only thing he could do was work on the pile until he dropped. He feared that if he let himself stop, we would begin to cry and fall apart.

With time, he told me that the only creature that he could show positive feelings to was his dog. What I came to understand was that it was the emotional connection with this pet that reduced his rage and gave him the courage to come for help, and eventually cry for those he had lost.

Anger as an Antidote to Loss

One heartbreaking solution to avoid grieving the loss of a loved one is to stay angry.

Common to veterans who convince themselves that to stay angry is to stay loyal, and to parents whose anger is fueled by the injustice of a child’s stolen life, it is both understandable and emotionally exhausting.

Often it is intended to keep others away as the pain is too great to bear or to share.

Often the world misunderstands that time doesn’t just heal; rather, people slowly heal in their own time.

  • While people move through excruciating loss in their own time and in their own way, some begin to use religion, the warmth of a partner or friend, the help of a counselor or the power of a cause to redirect their anger.
  • Some find that healing in a community with others who have suffered (Compassionate Friends for bereaved parents, AFSP for suicide support groups, TAPS for military families) allows for validation of anger and lightening its toll.
  • With time, many find that with less anger there is more space to embrace the memories, the enduring presence and the inspiration of the loved one.

Traumatic loss of any kind is a crisis of self that leaves us trying to hold on by any means. Often we grasp at anger to shield ourselves from the pain, to lessen our terror, and to hide our tears. When we are ready to look beyond it, we are often surprised. We don’t forget. We still have tears… but life seems possible.

Angry man photo available from Shutterstock