The experience of sexual abuse or sexual assault as a child, teen, or young adult can have traumatic effects throughout your life. In a similar vein, betrayal by a spouse who is a sex addict can shatter your sense of normalcy and leave you reeling from the traumatic backlash. It is normal to experience anger in response to traumatic events.
Yet we often fear or avoid anger because of its perceived destructive effects. We throw around statements like, “hurt people hurt people,” as though it’s a given that anger stemming from hurt will harm those around us. If you watched parents express anger with violence or abuse, you’re more likely to be primed to believe that anger is unacceptable. However, anger is not inherently bad nor is it harmful.
Reactions to Anger
There are various different ways in which we naturally react to anger caused by trauma.
Uncontrollable outbursts of anger
Anger may feel like it is constantly simmering under the surface, waiting to burst out at the slightest provocation. You could be more irritable and likely to lash out at others around you. You may feel out of control of the intensity of your anger response. You might also experience shame, especially if your anger is directed toward your loved ones, or it is similar to unhealthy expressions of anger you experienced as a child.
This type of reaction to anger can involve violence, either with physical action or with words. If you are becoming violent with those around you, please seek help.
Suppressing your anger.
If anger isn’t acceptable to you, you may take your anger and turn it inward as self-contempt or self-loathing. This is a common response for women. At its most extreme, this suppression of anger can turn into self-harm behaviors, drug and alcohol abuse, overeating, or suicidal thinking as ways to express the anger that has no other outlet. Sometimes suppressing anger can be encouraged by religious backgrounds that place an overemphasis on forgiveness and equate anger with sin.
If you are actively having suicidal thoughts and considering taking your own life, please care for yourself by calling the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.
A third way might be ignoring anger through distraction or numbing, until you are no longer able to access the anger itself. You may know it’s there or see it come out from time to time, but you just can’t get and stay angry. This can come after prolonged suppression of anger when the body adapts to the response of the mind. It can also be a way of dissociation or detaching from reality when the trauma has significantly affected your sense of self.
Healthy Response to Anger
Anger is a natural response to perceived injustice or wrong being committed against you. In many cases of trauma, the anger is justified by the wrongful actions of an abuser or betrayer. You can recognize the emotion of anger as acceptable because feelings alone do not harm anyone. In fact, anger can, at times, indicate love or care for other people, like your children or fellow survivors of abuse. You can learn to use your anger to serve you and help you move forward, rather than destroy your life. The more aware you become of your experience of anger, the more able you are to manage it effectively.
How to Deal with Anger
Get into therapy.
First and foremost: if you are a survivor of trauma, whether it is from your childhood or from more recent experiences, the most effective way you can work through it is through therapy. EMDR-Certified therapists and trauma-informed therapists do specialized work in treating trauma. Find a therapist who you click with and trust them to be your support as you walk through the anger and other corresponding emotions that arise from your trauma.
Identify your go-to response to anger.
From the list above, identify yourself: are you someone who stuffs their anger down, only to turn it inward on yourself? Do you find yourself lashing out at others and feeling angry all the time? Or do you numb out and find it difficult to experience or express anger at all? Examine the origin of this automatic response: did your family or parents handle anger in this way? In the opposite way? Where did you learn to express your anger in this way? Acknowledging that anger is learned helps you to feel empowered to learn new ways to deal with anger.
Identify other emotions that are intensifying the anger or getting in the way.
Your anger may be directed at your abuser in the case of sexual abuse, or your spouse in the case of spousal betrayal and addiction. However, you might find outbursts of anger in the present moment have nothing to do with the individual who wronged you: instead, they may be directed at individuals you interact with in everyday life. It may be connected to stress, feelings of overwhelm, hurt, disappointment, or sadness. Explore how any of the emotions behind the anger might be difficult for you based on past experiences.
Conversely, if you struggle to access your anger, examine what might be getting in the way. Perhaps fear of how you will react or how others will perceive you prevents you from feeling comfortable experiencing your anger. Follow the narrative through with these questions: if I really allowed myself to get angry, what do I believe would happen? How true do I believe this is?
Slow down and notice your body.
When you feel anger coming up, hit the pause button. Slow yourself down for long enough to check in with your thoughts and experience. Notice your body’s physical response to the anger. Describe or draw the anger: what color is it? What shape, size, and texture? Is it moving or standing still? Where is it located in your body?
Write a letter to your abuser or betrayer.
For those who are pointing the finger of self-blame at themselves, it can be helpful to write out a list of the reality of how the other person harmed you. This can assist you in feeling justified anger at the abuser for their actions, rather than directing that anger at yourself. I’d recommend you write this letter as a personal exercise rather than a letter to give to the abuser or betrayer: this will help you feel more freedom to express the full weight of your anger and be as honest as you’d like. If you find yourself wanting to share that letter, talk with your therapist and support individuals before making that decision.
Reframe your anger as a “dashboard light” telling you there’s something wrong.
Use your anger as a tool to indicate something’s off. It could be that you need to step up your self-care through contacting a supportive friend, attending an extra therapy session, or practicing a breathing exercise. If you learn to accept the anger as it arises and examine what your anger is telling you, it will help the angry feelings to dissipate. This increased awareness of the messages of anger can help you channel that anger into assertiveness and setting boundaries in relationships that trigger your anger.
Speak out on behalf of others currently experiencing trauma.
Channel your anger and frustration over past trauma into service for those who are experiencing similar situations. Write letters to government officials about fighting back against human trafficking or legislation related to sexual abuse. Attend events or rallies to support causes that empower women. Volunteer at a domestic violence shelter. Get involved in survivor’s groups where you can find others who have been through similar experiences.
Release anger through physical activity.
Often anger can feel like restlessness or pent up energy. When anger threatens to overwhelm, channel that energy into physical activity that will increase your endorphins and help you release your anger. Take a kickboxing or self-defense class to help you to feel empowered and able to defend yourself. Go for a long run and imagine the anger releasing into the ground with each footfall.
Write a statement affirming how you will deal with anger.
Negative beliefs about yourself or the world around you can perpetuate feelings of anger. Once you’ve identified the sources of your anger and your influences on how you experience or express anger, identify faulty thinking patternsthat make it difficult for you to feel in control or safe. Write a statement reminding yourself of what is true about your anger that gives you support and grounding during intense experiences of anger.
Do you struggle with outbursts of anger that seem to come out of nowhere? Or do you have difficulty even accessing anger? Are you afraid of what will happen when you feel anger? Do you have a history of trauma? At Restored Hope, I offer personalized, trauma-informed counseling to help you understand the effects of trauma on your daily life, as well as release the triggers and anger that continue to arise. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.