Anger: A Normal Stage in Trauma Recovery

Anger is a common and normal reaction in the process of recovering from trauma. When someone experiences a traumatic event, like abuse, an accident, disaster, or violent crime, it disrupts their sense of safety and control. Anger is one of the ways our mind and body react as we process the trauma and attempt to regain control.

Anger might come up at various stages of trauma recovery:

Immediately After the Trauma

Feeling angry is very common in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic experience. The event has just disrupted the victim’s world and violated their sense of security. Feeling angry is a protective response – anger helps mobilize us to defend ourselves and regain control. Anger also allows the victim to transfer some of the pain of the trauma from grief and despair to rage. This immediate anger can be focused both outward (at the perpetrator, for example) and inward (at oneself).

Ongoing Disturbances

As trauma symptoms like hypervigilance, anxiety, irritability, and flashbacks continue, anger often comes along with it. The person may feel angry that they cannot move past the trauma. Anger act as a stimulant to help mask underlying depression and hopelessness. Irritability and outbursts of anger are also very common among those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The anger is triggered by any reminder of the trauma and the lack of power associated with it.

Attacks on Self-Esteem

Trauma often damages a person’s self-esteem and self-image. Feelings of guilt, shame, self-blame, or low self-worth frequently accompany trauma. The victim may wonder “Why did this happen to me?” and internalize blame and criticism. They may also encounter victim-blaming attitudes from society or their community that further degrade their self-image. Feelings of vulnerability, helplessness, and powerlessness prevail. Anger arises in response as a way to defend oneself emotionally. It helps mask the painful feelings and turn the blame outward.

Delayed Anger

For some trauma survivors, the anger does not appear until well after the traumatic event occurred. This delayed anger response happens once some level of healing and adjustment has taken place, yet there are still lingering feelings of injustice regarding what happened. As individuals become more stable, they are able to experience anger that may have been suppressed or overwhelmed before. They have the resources to recognize how unfair the trauma was and to demand justice. This anger can resurface as they tell their stories, pursue legal action, or return to the scene of the trauma.

Reasons and Roots

There are many understandable reasons and roots for the anger that emerges during trauma recovery:

  • Rage at the perpetrator/source of trauma
  • Anger over the injustice and senselessness
  • Exasperation at the lack of control and helplessness
  • Irritability from hypervigilance and stress
  • Frustration with the healing process
  • Cognitive and emotional overload
  • Blaming others or self to help explain what happened
  • Lashing out to reestablish sense of power

Anger that stems from these natural causes following trauma is not misplaced or unhealthy. It serves a purpose in the healing process. Expressing anger in constructive ways and addressing the roots of the rage can help to work through it over time.

Risks of Anger Suppression

While anger is common as a trauma response, suppressing it or letting it fester can cause problems. Repressed anger that goes unresolved may lead to:

  • Passive-aggressive behavior
  • Cynicism, bitterness, and resentment
  • Aggressive outbursts or volatile behavior
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Somatic issues like headaches, chest pain, insomnia
  • Substance abuse (using alcohol or drugs to numb anger)

Some trauma survivors try to bypass or suppress their anger because it feels shameful, dangerous, or disturbing. However, avoiding angry feelings usually backfires. It takes a great deal of energy to keep anger bottled up. Efforts to restrain it often fail.

Healthy Anger Expression

An essential part of trauma recovery involves finding appropriate ways to feel, release and resolve the anger:

  • Put words to it (describe aloud or write out the reasons for anger)
  • Use physical exercise as an outlet
  • Speak up assertively, not aggressively
  • Set healthy boundaries and limitations
  • Practice relaxation techniques
  • Vent to a counselor or safe friend
  • Use art, music, or writing to express it
  • Gain understanding about the causes
  • Separate present anger from past trauma
  • Determine if action/change is possible
  • Consider forgiveness as healing

Though challenging, looking beneath the anger can uncover legitimate needs, regrets, fears, and desires. The anger does not need to be eradicated altogether but rather digested, discharged, and managed. Completely ignoring or avoiding all anger prevents resolution and recovery from trauma.

Anger Must Progress to Next Stages

Anger arises in trauma recovery for good reason – it indicates healing is underway but incomplete. Anger helps empower victims and rouse them to defend against further harm. Yet for full recovery, anger must eventually make way for the later stages of working through trauma: bargaining, depression, and acceptance. As recovery progresses, grief, sadness, and lament begin replacing overt rage. The individual relies less on anger as a psychological defense. While slight anger may remain as a residual response, it no longer dominates.

Anger often flares up and then fades in a cyclic pattern during trauma recovery. Each time it surfaces provides an opportunity to understand its causes, express it constructively, and allow it to pass. When anger is handled as a natural reaction along the path to healing, it can be an invaluable ally in reclaiming power and justice.