Anger and Trauma
Victims of trauma experience severe violations of personal boundaries. Consequently, persistent anger and anger management problems are common characteristics of individuals who have experienced traumatic events. This is true for survivors of abuse as well as for survivors of other types of adverse incidents. If loss occurs, anger as a stage of grieving is a common response as well.
Childhood Abuse and Anger
Physical, emotional or sexual abuse in childhood can interrupt the normal development of skills needed for healthy emotional management and relationship building. Consequently, abused children may need to learn age-appropriate interpersonal boundaries, assertiveness and coping strategies for strong emotion since they learn the emotional management skills modeled by the abusive adults in their lives. Angry, aggressive and abusive adults demonstrate disregard of the emotional, psychological and physical boundaries of others. Children exposed to such behavior learn that anger and aggression can be used in relationships to communicate, establish dominance, exert control, solve problems and resolve conflict.
Another significant source of anger for adults who were abused as children is the deep sense of betrayal and abandonment experienced during childhood abuse. Children look to significant adults in their lives for protective nurturance. Frustration is a normal response to having unmet dependency needs. Chronic frustration, as in situations of prolonged or frequent abuse, will typically develop into chronic anger. Additionally, revenge fantasies often fuel chronic anger management problems for victims of childhood abuse. Revenge fantasies also play a significant role in anger problems related to abuse situations in later life.
Victims of domestic violence experience many personal violations during the abusive relationship. These include the violation of physical boundaries in battering as well as the violation of emotional, mental and psychological boundaries caused by ‘hands-off’ abuse. Power, control and manipulation tactics used in intimate partner violence place victims in situations of constant scrutiny, monitoring, submissiveness and fear. Such circumstances create a ‘survival’ response in victims even when violence and control are not physically assaultive. Anger is a common and natural part of such an experience. It is an instinctive response to violation and danger.
Additionally, power and control dynamics in domestic violence perpetuate rigid relationship roles of domination and submission. A typical response to prolonged submission created by abuse is a desire to gain dominance over the aggressor. Some victims of domestic violence become ‘mutually’ aggressive in incidents of battering as a reaction to having been victimized. Others become aggressive in a retaliatory way, waiting for opportunities to victimize their abusers. Still others will become aggressive in ensuing relationships in order to ‘protect’ themselves from potential abusers.
Poor stress management is a foundational cause of many anger problems and individuals who have experienced trauma often have multiple layers of chronic stress in their daily lives. The primary stress of the traumatic situation itself can be psychologically overwhelming and debilitating for some time. This causes one to be at a psychological disadvantage when encountering new challenges that come with everyday, ‘non-traumatic’ life. Additionally, the stressors of everyday life fluctuate and add, from time to time, their own overwhelming effects that may peak and push the limits of one’s abilities to cope.
Individuals who must cope with persisting symptoms of trauma-induced strain will typically have a less resilient response to any new stress added by living ordinary lives in which ordinary problems arise. Frustration, impatience, irritability, anxiety and cumulative stress can trigger angry outbursts and even aggression. Without good stress management techniques built into everyday life, stress and poor coping continue and complicate each new life challenge. For many living with poor stress management habits, anger and aggression are frequently used in an attempt to ‘blow off steam’, gain control, resolve conflicts or solve problems.
Individuals who work in highly stressful situations for prolonged periods are at risk for traumatization and related anger problems. Coping skills are taxed by insufficient recuperation time, other forms of poor self-care and accumulating stress. Healthcare professionals and emergency responders exemplify the types of professionals who often work in such situations. ‘Burnout’ is a common occupational hazard for them.
Regular and effective stress management practices are necessary to prevent inappropriate emotionality during job burnout and in other situations of over-responsibility. Caring for loved ones that are debilitated for long periods of time, for example, can create the same ‘on-the-job’ dynamics of inadequate stress management and poor coping. For individuals who are also survivors of trauma, burnout and compassion fatigue can dramatically compound the risk of anger management problems.