In this blog, I will highlight the different forms of anger and why psychologically, and biologically you struggle with complex PTSD and anger. Learn how anger is related to Complex PTSD and how you can get help.
Firstly, anger is a normal emotion that we all need and have naturally. To get or feel angry by itself isn’t a bad thing. We actually need anger to survive as it is part of our inbuilt flight or fight response to stress.
The issue is that anger can sometimes become a problem if you have Complex PTSD. You could find yourself either stuck with anger issues or the complete opposite which can also cause problems.
What is Complex PTSD
Complex trauma is basically repeated trauma over a period of time where a child believes there is no escape from what they are experiencing. It is trauma that is interpersonal in nature where the perpetrator of the trauma is someone well-known or trusted by the child.
I have provided an in-depth explanation of What Complex Trauma is here also in a separate blog I explained how it compares to other types of trauma.
Causes of Complex PTSD and Anger
I believe we need to dig deep and look into our past as a child or adolescents to where all this could have started.
CPTSD is a severe form of PTSD, sometimes called developmental trauma, and usually arises from trauma or difficulties from childhood. This trauma during your childhood, unlike PTSD, would be repetitive, usually lasting over a long period of time. The child then feels trapped or powerless and there is no way out of it.
The child then adopts coping mechanisms to manage their life to help them survive. Those coping mechanisms helped them to survive as a child but then it becomes normal and the child brings those ways of coping into adulthood.
I have done a previous article on CPTSD, you can read about it here.
When a child experiences trauma, they usually respond in one of four ways to cushion themselves against what is happening to them in their lives.
Fight – where you believe that power and control is what you need to feel safe
Flight – Where you respond to a threat by finding ways to flee from the situation
Freeze – Where you give up, disconnect, disassociate or numb out to cope
Fawn – You have taught her to appease your abusers to feel safe.
These four ways are known as the 4F type (Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn) response.
There is nothing wrong with any of the 4F types. One is not better than the other. In response to a difficult situation, when we are emotionally healthy, we can access anyone of these appropriately.
It is OK to be angry and to try and control situations. The only issue is when you respond to all situations and difficulties with anger. As opposed to being assertive, set good boundaries. You can be aggressive to defend yourself when necessary.
The first thing to say here is that what is traumatic for a child is not necessarily viewed as traumatic for us as adults. Sometimes we look back at our childhood and think, in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t that bad, my parents were great, etc. It is important to view our childhood through the eyes of a child and their experiences at that time.
So please don’t say, I had a great upbringing, nothing major happened to me, and my parents were good people. That’s not the issue here, the issue here is that for you, as a child on an unconscious and subconscious level, you felt you needed to respond in anger to defend and protect yourself against whatever was happening to you.
The only issue here, as it is with all types of trauma mentioned about (Fight, flight, freeze, or Fawn), without the emotional support of some kind, it is difficult to break out of those behavioural patterns and habits.
People who respond in anger may have experienced one or more of the following as a child:
- Witnessing violence
- Witnessed domestic abuse
- Unresolved grief / complicated grief
- Experiencing violence and aggression either verbal, physical, or emotional
- Was bullied as a child but did not get any emotional support
- Witnessed anger frequently as a way of responding to situations between family members i.e. all family members shouted and argued
- Your parents did not demonstrate any boundaries for your anger as a child. Maybe they were quite passive and allowed you to get away with certain behaviours without any consequences.
- Unhealthy Sibling rivalry to the extent you were scapegoated
The list can go on
Symptoms of Complex PTSD and anger
You can read more about the general symptoms of Complex PTSD here. Following is how some of those symptoms relate to anger.
According to Pete Walker, “flashbacks are sudden and often prolonged regression, emotionally, to the often-frightening circumstances of childhood. These feelings are often intense and confusing”. Fear and despair are usually at the root of these intense feelings but many times, someone with anger issues responds with rage, power, and control rather than allow themselves to feel that vulnerability.
Many people are not always consciously aware of what is really happening. They don’t realise that they are responding to memory as we don’t always make the connection. They may not realise that at the root of their so-called anger could be fear and unresolved pain.
Generally, something triggers these feelings and it could be anything but, in this example, we will look at anger in relationships.
When someone with CPTSD gets angry, they are often unaware that they are having an emotional flashback to previous childhood trauma. They are convinced that their anger is because of the person that has hurt their feelings at the present time. Often, when we overreact and the present situation does not fit our reaction, it is likely that we could be having an emotional flashback.
Severe Outer Critic
The outer critic is the part of us that sees everyone else as defective and unworthy. When the outer critic is overwhelming you, people seem to be too awful and too dangerous to trust.
Through its all-or-none programming, in otherwise either you are good or you’re bad there are no grey areas, the outer critic rejects others because they will never be perfect and cannot be guaranteed to be safe.
The outer critic alienates us from others. It attacks others and scares them away, or it builds walls around them to protect themselves because of what they feel are other people’s shortcomings.
Healthy shame is I’ve made a mistake. Toxic shame is “I am a mistake”. Someone who is a flight type would see either their own mistakes or the mistakes of others as a flaw in their character. For example, someone who has Narcissist Personality Disorder often uses toxic shame.
They may respond by resorting to the only method they know how which is to project their feelings of shame back onto others. Someone here could also have a very fragile self-esteem which could fuel this further.
Means being ‘stuck’ in an emotional level of development. For example, someone with the fight-type response may be stuck emotionally as a toddler and tend to overly respond to seemingly simple situations like a toddler.
A symptom of Complex PTSD is a mood disorder. This is a condition that affects your emotional state. Certain mood disorders such as depression and Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD). involves frequent anger outbursts and irritability out of proportion to the situation. DMDD is more severe than an intermittent explosive disorder (IED), and anger is present most of the time.
Why Is Anger a Common Trauma Response?
If you think about the natural response of a lion hunting for food. He then spots a gazelle who then runs away (flights). However, the lion’s hunt is fueled by his passion and aggression (fight) to get what he needs. If he doesn’t fight for what he needs, he won’t eat.
The sympathetic nervous system activates our fight or flight and it prepares our bodies to react in those appropriate situations. We fight when we need to and flight or run away if the situation requires it.
The problem when you have anger issues is that, unlike the lion who once he has caught the gazelle, he calms down straight away and he eats. His body relaxes so he can digest his food properly. After that, he only then feels this anger when he is hunting for food and defending himself.
This does not happen so easily if you have anger issues as this fight response (fight type) does not switch off that easily or it tends to get fired up at times when it is not appropriate.
This is because as a child you may have learned that you had to fight back either physically or emotionally to survive what you were going through. Fight types are unconsciously driven, according to Pete Walker, by the belief that power and control can create safety, assuage abandonment, and secure love.
In other words, on some subconscious level, feeling or reacting angrily helps you to feel in control or to feel safe.
fight-or-flight response triggered by the amygdala, responsible for processing emotions in the brain.
When this happens, a person’s brain can perceive that they are in danger, even if they are not. This is known as an amygdala hijack and can also result in things like flashbacks, nightmares, or being easily startled.
The trauma and shock of early childhood abuse often affect how well the survivor learns to control his or her emotions. Problems in this area lead to frequent outbursts of extreme emotions, including anger and rage.
What to do next
Recovering from complex PTSD takes time. For some people, the condition may pose lifelong challenges.
One goal of recovery support is to attempt to develop or recapture feelings of trust in others and the world. This can take time, but participating in healthy relationships is a positive step.
With the right therapy, nutrition, and lifestyle changes, people can manage or reduce their symptoms and improve their overall wellness.
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