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Constructive vs. Destructive Anger in PTSD

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Updated May 15, 2014

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It is common for someone with (or in recovery from) post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to experience anger. In fact, because the experience of anger is so common among people with PTSD, it is actually considered one of the hyperarousal symptoms of PTSD. Although anger can often lead to unhealthy behaviors (for example, substance use or impulsive behavior), the experience of anger in and of itself is not a bad thing. It is a valid emotional experience that can provide you with important information.

The Facets and Functions of Anger

In general, even though emotions may often feel unpleasant or uncomfortable, they serve a very important purpose. Emotions are essentially our body's way of communicating with us. Emotions can communicate information to other people, give us information about our environment, prepare us for action, and deepen our experience of life.

Anger in particular is an emotion that is often about control. When we experience anger, our body may be telling us that we feel as though things are out of our control, or that we have been violated in some way. Anger can motivate us to try to establish control (or a sense of control) over a situation. Given this function of anger, it makes sense that a person with PTSD may often experience anger.

The experience of a traumatic event can make you feel violated or constantly unsafe. It may also make you feel as though you have little control over your life. In addition, the symptoms of PTSD can give you the sense that danger is all around and there is no escape. The extreme fluctuations of internal experience among people with PTSD (for example, constantly fluctuating between emotional numbing and intense anxiety) may also make you experience your inner life as chaotic and out of control. Considering these symptoms, it seems completely understandable that you may experience anger, as your body is attempting to communicate to you that things feel out of our control.

Even though anger is a very valid emotion, according to Seeking Safety, a well-known treatment for people with PTSD and substance use problems developed by Dr. Lisa Najavits, it has the potential to be used either constructively or destructively.

Constructive Anger

In Seeking Safety, Dr. Lisa Najavits describes constructive anger as anger that can be healing. Constructive anger is often not as strong as destructive anger. It is also something that can be explored or examined to help you better understand your situation, other people, and yourself. Further, for anger to be constructive, a person must also be aware of that anger. Finally, constructive anger is something that is managed appropriately. To do so, you have to recognize your own needs and the needs of others.

As an example of constructive anger, let's say that a friend cancels an important lunch date with you at the last minute. By approaching your anger and listening to what it is telling you, you might be motivated to talk to your friend about how you were upset by the last-minute cancellation and come up with ways to make sure that it doesn't happen again. The anger in this situation is being used to take control over the situation and maintain your self-respect.

Destructive Anger

Destructive anger causes harm, according to Dr. Lisa Najavits in Seeking Safety. This is anger that is responded to in an unhealthy way. For example, a person may act out aggressively towards others. The anger might also be turned inward, resulting in deliberate self-harm or substance use.

Destructive anger is also often very frequent and/or strong. It may also be something that the person is unaware of or something that the person has suppressed or tried to avoid. When anger (as well as other emotions) are not attended to, the emotion often builds in strength and can increase the likelihood that it would be expressed in an unhealthy manner.

Destructive anger may work very well in the short-term by releasing tension; however, it is associated with long-term negative consequences. For example, if you were to respond to your friend (from the example above) by yelling at him or cutting off all ties with him, you could lose a friendship and an important source of social support. If you took the anger out on yourself, you wouldn't learn how to adequately cope with the situation, increasing the likelihood that it would occur again in the future.

Managing Your Anger

Anger can be a difficult emotion to manage, especially for someone with PTSD. However, if you can listen to your anger and attempt to connect with the information that it is giving you, you can learn how to better respond to your environment. In addition, better understanding why the anger is there may make it feel less chaotic and unpredictable.

There are a number of healthy ways of managing anger (as well as other emotions). For example, self-soothing skills can be very helpful. Taking a time-out can also be helpful. Finally, seeking out social support can also be an effective way of responding to anger. Other emotion regulation strategies that may be helpful for anger are discussed here. Seeking Safety also includes a number of ways of coping with anger (as well as other symptoms of PTSD).

It is important to remember that if you have been pushing down your anger for some time, it may initially feel very uncomfortable to approach it. The anger may feel very intense or out of control. However, the more you approach your anger, listen to it, and respond to it in a healthy way, the more your tolerance for anger will increase, and the long-term negative consequences of not dealing with anger will decrease.

Sources:

Najavits, L.M. (2002). Seeking Safety: A Treatment Manual for PTSD and Substance Abuse. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

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