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Trauma - From anger to empowerment

Nov 15, 2009


We hear the term used all the time. "He or she was traumatized". Often the impression we get is that trauma makes people go a little crazy and maybe do crazy things. Both of these can be true. To define trauma what I will do is first identify the types of experiences which typically can cause trauma and then identify some of the emotional effects seen with trauma.

In general, the type of experience that will create trauma is one that invokes fear combined with a loss of control. It can be as simple as that. Webster's Dictionary defines trauma as "a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from mental or emotional stress or physical injury". The "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" defines it as "the development of characteristic symptoms following exposure to an extreme traumatic stressor involving direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one's physical integrity; or witnessing an event that involves death, injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person; or learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death or injury experienced by a family member", etc..... So rather than go with the long winded definition it is easier and more meaningful for me to think of trauma as caused by events that create fear and a sense of loss of control. The aspect of loss of control is a key component of trauma,as you will see later when we discuss the effects of trauma.

So, events that create fear combined with a sense of loss of control are many. It would be a long list. Here are some of them.

Military combat
Sexual assault
Physical attack
Domestic Violence
Being kidnapped
Being taken hostage
Terrorist attack
Natural or man made disasters
Automobile accident
Other accident
Life threatening illness
Witnessing the death or injury of another (person or animal)
Unexpected death of a family member

As you can see many of these involve violence. Violence will just about always create some level of trauma, because the experience of violence always inherently involves some level of fear and sense of loss of control. It may not be visibly apparent as in an individual in a gang that regularly engages in violence, but the effects of trauma can build over time, the effects of which can be seen in different ways. As I stated, a gang member who is often the initiator of violence is also traumatized by virtue of the fact that he engages in it.

Many people ask me if their experience qualifies as a "traumatic experience". I tell them, "If you feel traumatized, you are traumatized". What I mean by this is trauma is a very personal thing. You can take 10 people and have them experience the same event and some will manifest more symptoms of trauma than others. Some of us are more sensitive than others. If we are more sensitive to control due to our life experiences than we will be more vulnerable psychologically to a traumatic event. If our temperament is more rigid and resistant to change, we will be more vulnerable to a traumatic event. It is the individual perspective of the person having the experience that often determines the level of trauma symptoms that develop.

I also believe that all of us, on some level, are constantly developing some lower level of chronic trauma over time just from the experience of life. Life brings to us continuous stress, which if not proactively dealt with on a constant basis gradually traumatizes our bodies and leads to disease and death. In addition, if we watch TV or use certain computer games on any kind of regular basis, we are experiencing low level traumatic events by the witnessing of violence. I am guilty of sometimes enjoying too many horror movies, which historically has been a small addiction of mine. And too often an effect of this activity has been bad dreams. Try counting sometime how many times in one week we see some act of violence by watching TV. Exposing ourselves to violence, real or unreal is inherently traumatizing and as I said, this builds up over time.


Anger is one of the primary effects of trauma. But why is anger present? It is present as a secondary emotion. It is a defense against the myriad of intensely felt primary emotions, such as fear (a big one being fear of loss of control or fear of the event happening again). This fear turns into a generalized anxiety. Other intense primary emotions include a sense of violation, extreme sorrow, loss of trust, a loss of connection to others, disassociation and withdrawal, guilt and shame. When these primary emotions are so intense and seem unmanageable we use anger to cover them up because the pain of dealing with all of them at once is too unbearable. The anger gives us a temporary sense of empowerment and allows us to filter the primary emotions one by one as we can manage them. Unfortunately, what happens too often is we permanently repress the primary emotions and stay with the anger. This is discussed below.

The anger is either a projection outward or inward. If it is outward we are externally demonstrating our anger towards others. If it is inward we are depressed. Neither is a state we want to stay in very long.

The traumatic event that we experienced often involved a real loss of control or brought about a perceived loss of control. As a result the need for control is a dominant symptom in the person struggling from the effects of trauma. The fear of loss of control is predominantly what drives the sense of generalized anxiety that accompanies trauma. Those of us with a deeper need for control in our life will suffer more.


Label the anger as normal. To start off you will probably be stuck with a lot of anger. You want to normalize it. I don't care how angry you get, don't add insult to injury by telling yourself how you feel is wrong. The goal here is for our self esteem to get better not worse. Learning to validate your own feelings while you are in trauma may be difficult, but it is a valuable life skill assignment. Don't expect the validation to come from others either, because you will probably be in for disappointments there. Most people, unless they have been through something similar are sadly lacking in the ability to empathize or understand at all what you are going through. Instead, your anger will probably scare them and cause them to withdraw from you. In the profession we refer to the anger caused from trauma as "a normal reaction to an abnormal event". Keep that in mind at all times. Use the anger to motivate you towards positive change, but don't get stuck in it too long or it will eat you up alive.

Label your primary emotions as normal. Remember, these are the emotions such as hurt, fear, helpless, violated, shame and loss to name a few, that you are hiding out from. They are too intense at first to deal with all at once. We must deal with them one by one as we have the strength. Remember this phrase, "There is no healing except through the pain of the primary emotion". So, as we are able, we must dredge up each primary emotion and process it. Know that the pain of it will not kill you. You must feel the pain, acknowledge it, own it and embrace it as a part of your humanness. You must understand that it is through the resistance of our feelings that we resist ourselves and who we are and that a large part of our healing needs to come from acknowledging and honoring the new us. It is through this processing that you come to healing and renewed strength. The strength that you will have by dealing with your feelings in this way will be greater than you have ever known and will give you a life skill you may have never known. It is the true path to empowerment.

Nurture yourself. You have experienced some kind of violation. Your body may be on overload. You have a right to take it easy. Take care of your body. Take the time to eat well and exercise. Meditate. Control your stress exposure. This can be one of the gifts of your trauma experience that you receive, a renewed commitment to your physical and psychological health.

Grieve the loss. With every traumatic experience there is a loss. This loss needs to be grieved just as we would grieve someone's death. The loss may be real or symbolic (also real). Real loss might be something like the loss of money, the loss of ability to walk, the loss of a body part, the loss of a friend or family member. Symbolic loss would include things like the loss of a sense of purity (comes with sexual assault), the loss of a sense of freedom to be ourselves, the loss of a sense of freedom to be in the world without fear, the loss of trust of others or governments, the loss of a sense of control of your own world, the loss of love or companionship. Focusing on and processing your loss or losses is an important part of your healing.

Learn to be more flexible. The more rigid we are going through this healing experience the more painful it will be for us. For those of us that are typically less flexible, see it as an opportunity to practice flexibility. It may be difficult to do, but learning to let go is part of the gift that this experience brings us. Learning to let go when we most need to feel that we have control may not be possible at first, but keep it in mind as something we are supposed to be learning through this experience. The event is telling us we can't control everything in life. To come to terms with this reality will serve to make the rest of our life more joyful.

Accept the gift. Know that with every bad experience there is a gift. We may not see it for a long time, but it is nonetheless there. Seek the knowledge of it when you are ready. It may be the gift of increased emotional strength that we ultimately will receive through processing the pain. It may be the gift of knowledge and wisdom once we are able to look at what we have learned from the experience. It may be the gift of purpose if we decide we want to channel our wisdom by helping others.

Make peace with the new reality. The experience will change us and we can never go back to the old us. Our life will never be the same. We can either choose to resist that and be bitter or accept it and move forward. We will thrive if we choose to embrace the new us and if we choose to appreciate what our new perception of the world will bring us.

Take responsibility. A large part of the gift our trauma experience brings us will come from the wisdom that it brings us. We cannot achieve this wisdom unless we are willing to reflect on our choices or learn from our mistakes. This builds character and maturity. From this we regain a sense of empowerment and control of our world. It is one of the last things we will do in our healing because for a victim it is one of the most difficult.

Forgive. Let go of your anger towards whatever or whomever you hold it through the use of empathy. Forgive them for being who they are. Forgive them for doing what they did. Try to understand the reason for their weakness or callousness. Remember forgiveness doesn't mean you agree with or condone what they did. Forgiveness is about you letting go of the pain that keeps you from moving forward.

Author: Lorraine Watson

Lorraine Watson is the author of "Expressing Anger Nonviolently". The contents of that book can be viewed on our website.

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