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Are you in Burnout? 10 Important Questions and Answers

Anger and rage in adults

People who have experienced developmental trauma (meaning abuse and neglect as children) will usually say that they are quick to anger when I ask. They will say “Yes,” when I ask them whether they would describe their anger as rage.

This response may come as a surprise to you if you had parents who were good enough. If your parents didn’t reach this bar, meaning they weren’t good enough parents by definition, then you may be saying to yourself that the word rage describes your anger, too. You might say, “Oh, yes, rage often describes what I feel.”

So where does rage come from? Rage can happen when you have an elevated level of adrenaline in your blood stream. Remember the concept of fight, flight or freeze? People who experienced developmental trauma needed their minds and their bodies to be constantly ready to either fight, flee or freeze as children to survive. One result of these early, prolonged experiences is that they can become ‘stuck in fight mode’ as adults.

Let me share an example to help illustrate this point. I was standing in line at the grocery store about a year ago when I saw the sausages that I had put on the conveyor belt beside the cashier suddenly fly through the air. I looked up and asked the cashier what had just happened. She said, “The woman ahead of you used her arm to sweep your sausages onto the floor.”

This explanation didn’t help me understand what had happened, so I looked at the woman ahead of me in line and asked her, “Did you just push my sausages onto the floor?”

The woman confirmed that she had pushed my sausages because she didn’t have enough room on the conveyor belt to put down her toilet paper.

Let’s look at this story for a moment because it illustrates the concept of rage rather nicely. The woman ahead of me felt compelled to push my sausages onto the floor because there wasn’t enough free room on the conveyor belt for her to be able to put down her toilet paper. Sounds like a bit of an over-reaction, right?

It sounds like an over-reaction if you were raised by good enough parents and are able to regulate your emotions adequately. If you have this ability, you might say to yourself, “Hmm. There’s not enough room here the put down my toilet paper. I have a minor problem…. I wonder what I should do?”

But that’s about as far as you’ll go because you will know that you are safe. You’ll know that you can deal with the situation calmly. That there’s no threat. That you are not in danger. You’ll be confident that you can find a reasonable solution to the problem of where to put down your toilet paper in due course.

But if you didn’t have good enough parents, then you may be inclined to react as though you are in danger. If your parents weren’t good enough, you may believe that you are in real, physical danger. You’ll believe that the woman challenging you in the grocery store line poses a physical threat to you. You’ll believe that she’s purposely put her sausages where your toilet paper should be and that you have to act fast in order to survive. Your adrenaline will surge and you will respond quickly. In self defense, you will sweep her sausages onto the floor.

I believe that the woman in line ahead of me at the grocery store likely experienced developmental trauma. After she had left the grocery store, the cashier told me that this customer escalates otherwise normal situations in the store about once a week.

The level of adrenaline in the woman’s body likely elevates to an 8 out of 10, with 10 being the highest level possible, multiple times each day. Her perception of danger and response to the imagined threats she is surrounded by makes me wonder about the terrible trauma she lived through.

I find it helps my clients, as we discuss rage for the first time, when I tell them that their reactions are normal, given the constant threat that they lived under for years and sometimes for decades. I explain that I will help them to reduce their baseline level of arousal so that they are not so quick to experience rage. I tell them that we can be successful in this work. As this idea sinks in, they tell me they are tired of feeling angry and feeling bad about themselves all the time.

And then hope finally arrives.

Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta 

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