Anger, Trauma, and Systemic Oppression
As a former heavy metal musician my path to becoming a marriage and family counselor led me to appreciate the value of anger in all of its forms. When I began studying psychology it became clear to me that there was a condition called “normal” that most people did not meet the criteria for, and anger played a key role. I saw this come at the greatest cost to those that could afford it the least. I yearned to hear a different story about anger and mental health that was read between the lines.
Mental health is the sum total of our experience. Experience is influenced by the doctrine of culture enacted by society. Trauma experts, researchers, and doctors have been building awareness around the nature and prevalence of trauma in our culture and society.1-4 Kaiser Permanente’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) documents the two,5 linking trauma with chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse6 with ACES and correlating ACES with at least 50% of the leading causes of death in the United States.7, 22
The CDC reports, “the economic and social costs to families, communities, and society totals hundreds of billions of dollars each year,” as a result of childhood trauma.6 Often this trauma is intergenerational. In essence, trauma is a loss of power and connection. By nature, anger is a natural survival response to fear that is an act to protect oneself and re-establish power.8, 9. Trauma is one cause in the system. Anger is one symptom of the cause; research shows a strong correlation between the two.10
Destructive patterns are linked with unresolved anger. These destructive patterns affect relationships. Anger is not the only cause of these outcomes; however, it is a primary cause in most.11 While there is a tendency to view the effects of trauma, such as anger, as abnormal, more people than not have experienced some type of trauma in their lives6 and 1 in 6 score four ACES or higher.22 Whether anger is viewed as “bad,” or “good,” poison, or power, social context will have a lot to do with an individual or collective experience depending on culture and the variances of privilege defined by it.
Did you know you were angry? According to some studies, anger is one of the most frequent of human emotions.9 It is also the only primary emotion that varies as a function of social context.12
The funny thing about anger is that nobody has it, but everyone knows somebody that does. If you’re like many, you don’t know you are angry because anger blends into everyday life situations and personality.
- Anger can be:13
- Anger actions can be:
- Passive aggression
- Depression is anger turned inward23
- Suicide is anger turned inward that has gone murderous23
- Suicide is the top 10 leading cause of death in the United States and the second leading cause of death in people ages 10-345
- Suicide is linked with depression, anxiety, and chronic illness14
- Anxiety is fear
- Anger is a natural and common survival response to fear
- The top leading cause of death in the United States, heart disease, accounts for almost 50% of deaths7
- Heart disease is linked with anger and depression15
- 74% percent of people in the United States die from one the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States16
Anger is not “bad;” it’s how we deal with it. Stigmatization of mental health, oppression, and abuse of power are some factors that perpetuate the prevalence of unaddressed anger that can become destructive. When negative outcomes are linked with anger it is difficult to hold a different perspective and/or problematic to get curious, have compassion for and/or be proactive in helping oneself and/or another struggling with anger.
Someone conflicted with anger may be subject to alienation due to lack of trust and resentment from others.17 Individuals that suffer from anger may feel shame and fear and be afraid to seek help or support. A good example is that people with anger problems either fail to recognize their anger as a problem, or if they do they are reluctant to seek help because they feel ashamed.18 Survey results from the UK found that many more people recognize problem anger in people they are close to than they do in themselves.17
“Sentiments have included that anger is the elephant in the room in mental health.”18
When individuals feel that their emotions or experiences mean there is something wrong with them it becomes too painful to relate to those feelings,19 and when people are given no outlet for emotional expression they begin to doubt themselves.20
“When feelings and emotions are made enemies, much suffering can occur, but when we are able to work with these feelings and emotions it can radically change our lives”21
We can work towards a better future through building more awareness around the very profound and real impact that adverse childhood experiences have on our system and mental health. We must begin having different conversations around the effects of trauma on ourselves, others, and communities. We must decrease the stigmatization and shame that perpetuates intergenerational trauma and the systemic oppression and suppression of those affected by trauma – which in turn causes anger to become destructive.
- Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score. Penguin Books. New York, NY.
- Harris, N. (Director). (2014, September). How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime [Video file]. Retrieved September 1, 2020, from https://www.ted.com/talks/nadine_burke_harris_how_childhood_trauma_affects_health_across_a_lifetime
- Karr-Morse, R., & Wiley, M. (2012). Scared sick. New York, NY: Basic Books.
- Levine, P. (2008). Healing trauma: A pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). FastStats. Cdc.gov. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). FastStats. Cdc.gov. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/fastfact.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). FastStats. Cdc.gov. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death.htm
- Levine, P. (1997). Waking the tiger: Healing trauma. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
- Reilly, P. M., & Shopshire, M. S. (2002). Anger management for substance abuse and mental health clients: A cognitive behavioral therapy manual. Rockville, MD: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.
- U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. (2020). PTSD: National Center for PTSD. ptsd.va.gov. Retrieved from https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand/related/anger.asp
- Weisinger, H. (1985). Dr. weisinger’s anger work-out book (1st ed.). New York, NY: Quill.
- Scherer, K. R., & Wallbott, H. G. (1994). Evidence for universality and cultural variation of differential emotion response patterning. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 66(2), 310-328. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1680
- Eckman’s Atlas of Emotions. (2018). Atlas of Emotions. Retrieved from http://atlasofemotions.org/#states/anger
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Tips from Former Smokers. Cdc.gov. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/campaign/tips/diseases/depression-anxiety.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Heart Disease. Cdc.gov. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/mentalhealth.htm
- Heron, M. (2019). Deaths: leading causes for 2017. National Vital Statistics Reports, 68(4)
- Mental Health Foundation. (March 2008). Handbook on boiling point: problem anger and what we can do about it. Retrieved from http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/boiling- point-report/. ISBN: 978-1-906162-13-9
- News.bbc.co.uk. (2015). Anger problems ‘left untreated’. Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7304505.stm
- Welwood, J. (2000). Toward a psychology of awakening (1st ed.). Boston, MA: Shambhala.
- Hannaford, C. (1995). Smart moves: Why learning is not all in your head. Arlington, VA: Great Ocean Publishers.
- Preece, R. (2006). The wisdom of imperfection (1st ed.). Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.
- Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences. (2020). Retrieved 15 September 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aces/index.html
- Nevid, J. S., Rathus, S. A. & Greene, B. (1997). Abnormal psychology in a changing world. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.