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Healing From the
Anger of Abuse
I have been following the wonderful,
healing threads about PTSD, anger, grief, and the healing of
wounded healers that have been developing here in the last few
weeks with awe and appreciation. The amount of compassion and
healing that is exhibited has been inspiring. As I have read
of the experiences of others and the measures they have taken
to heal I have been struck by the struggles to heal from anger
- both destructive anger directed at an individual and the anger
generated in an individual by the abuse or trauma they have
lived through. And I know for myself how hard it is to really
let go of anger... to weed it out of the garden of one's psyche.
I, too, was a battered wife - I
left the day after he had broken my jaw after having shouted
hours of corrosive abuse at me. While going through the divorce
that followed he continued to heap abuse on me and at one time
threatened to kill me - fortunately that time there were witnesses
to his threats. But I was so angry and frightened of him that
trying to talk with him, even with attorneys present, was very
difficult. I would either cry or shake. So I had to find ways
to let go of the emotions that fueled the unhelpful responses.
One thing I did was join a Jazzercise class. There was one exercise
that involved arm movements like boxing... I would imagine his
face 6 inches closer to me than the end of my arm... and punch
away. To all outward appearances I was just exercising. But
internally I was working off my anger and fear. Another thing
I was able to do was some kick boxing .... LOL well, I was living
in a dormitory at the time which had a very long hall way. During
vacations when no students were around I would run up and down
the halls in my stocking feet screaming - and aim kicks at the
walls and imagine his stomach or knees or back side right where
my foot would land. Now - and then - it is not in my nature
to be physically aggressive with anyone. I had no desire to
physically hurt him - but I did need to work off the built up
anger that was inside of me.
Above I mentioned "destructive
anger" for I believe there are different types of anger...
some destructive and some quite helpful and even protective.
Destructive anger IMO comes when the motivation is to deliberately
hurt someone else - either to show power over someone or to
control or just because..... I am sure we are all aware that
there are individuals who enjoy inflicting pain and maybe you
have encountered such individuals. But what I wanted to talk
about here isn't that kind of anger. Even the anger that comes
from being threatened, or having your feelings hurt, or the
fear response that comes from traumatic events and gets covered
up by anger can leave residuals that become corrosive over time.
Anger and it's closely related emotional
relative - fear - come from a specific physiological reaction
- the Fight or Flight reaction - produced by chemicals in the
body such as adrenaline, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Every
vertebrate creature has this same chemical process built into
their nervous system!!! So what do these chemicals do?
Fight or flight effects include:
* Our senses sharpening. Pupils dilate (open out) so we can
see more clearly, even in darkness. Our hairs stand on end,
making us more sensitive to our environment (and also making
us appear larger, hopefully intimidating our opponent). Our
hearing becomes more acute and our sense of smell also becomes
* The cardio-vascular system leaping
into action, with the heart pump rate going from one up to five
gallons per minutes and our arteries constricting to maximize
pressure around the system whilst the veins open out to ease
return of blood to the heart.
* The respiratory system joining
in as the lungs, throat and nostrils open up and breathing speeding
up to get more air in the system so the increased blood flow
can be re-oxygenated. The blood carries oxygen to the muscles,
allowing them to work harder. Deeper breathing also helps us
to scream more loudly!
* Fat from fatty cells and glucose
from the liver being metabolized to create instant energy. Blood
vessels to the kidney and digestive system being constricted,
effectively shutting down systems that are not essential. A
part of this effect is reduction of saliva in the mouth. The
bowels and bladder may also open out to reduce the need for
other internal actions (this might also dissuade our attackers!).
Also the reproductive system shuts down.
* Blood vessels to the skin being
constricted reducing any potential blood loss. Sweat glands
also open, providing an external cooling liquid to our over-worked
system. (this makes the skin look pale and clammy).
* Endorphins, which are the body's
natural pain killers, are released (when you are fighting, you
do not want be bothered with pain-that can be put off
* The natural judgment system is
also turned down and more primitive responses take overthis
is a time for action rather than deep thought.
So the body prepares to fight off
a threat or run away from the threat. But what happens if this
protective system is thwarted - if you cannot fight back or
run away because you are too small or are over powered by a
stronger individual? Or you are trapped in a situation where
escape is not possible? With your senses heightened you will
remember each moment of the experience. You will associate this
heightened state with fear or anger. And the feelings of powerlessness
may leave you feeling angry and helpless. If the trauma involves
sexual assault you may also associate this state with sexual
activity. And if the abuse is repeated - as does happen all
too often - the associations of trauma with this heightened
state dig deeper pathways into memory - both memory in the mind
and memory in the body.
Sometimes the trauma is so overwhelming
that you disassociate the experience... wall it off, encapsulate
the whole experience, separate it from the rest of your psyche.
Many young children do this as a protective measure during severe
abuse. They "forget" what happened because the experience
has been psychologically removed from their awareness. And when
they get older sometimes those walled off experiences stop being
walled off - or the wall gets breached somehow - and the memories
come back to awareness in the form of flashbacks or nightmares.
Even disassociated experiences - unremembered experiences -
like this can cause odd problems in later life.
When I was about 3 I underwent an
experimental treatment for chronic ear infections - radiation
treatment. My mother just said I was going to get treatment
to make my ears better. When we went
to the hospital for the treatment 2 men took me into a room
with (from a 3 year olds perspective) big and strange machines.
As I remember it they did not say much to me... no explanations,
no soothing - just put me on the cold hard x-ray table - and
strapped me down. Put straps around my body, straps around my
head and my jaw was also strapped closed. Then they aimed the
x-ray machine... walked away from me to go behind a wall ...
and the machine started making loud zapping noises. I was terrified!
But could not scream, cry, fight, or run away. My mother said
I had bad dreams for a while after that but then seemed to forget
about it. But as I got older some odd incidences happened. Like
having a panic attack when I had to have had x-rays after my
ex broke my jaw. Like throwing a mini hissy fit when my 18mo
old son had to have head x-rays when he wacked his head on a
metal table - the x-ray folks wanted to have me stay in the
waiting room and I got so panicky and (from their point of view,
I guess) hysterical that they had to let me stay with him. But
afterwards I really questioned myself because the reaction was
way over the top. Then when my 2nd child was about 6mo I got
a letter from the hospital where the treatment was done saying
some patients who'd had this treatment were developing thyroid
cancer and I should have my thyroid checked.... and I did not
remember having had the treatment at all - had to call my folks
and find out about it. Several years later I went to work for
my current company and my first office (a converted broom closet
- really!) was right next to the x-ray department - and every
time I was working and a child was in x-ray crying - I'd have
a full blown panic attack! And I had another panic attack when
I had to have a CT Scan because I was having inner ear problems.
I thought all this through for a while and decided that these
reactions probably had something to do with the x-ray treatment
I had gotten as a child... but that insight did NOT make these
reactions stop! I was seeing a therapist at the time about some
other issues and one day while in session I relived that whole
experience of getting the x-ray treatment. It was very interesting
... there was a part of me that was observing what happened
in the therapist's office (seemed like I was hovering just over
my own left shoulder) ... and another part of me was sitting
on the couch reliving the experience. And the part on the couch
really was only 3 years old. As I tried to explain... in the
limited vocabulary of a 3yo ... and talking through clenched
teeth like my jaws were strapped shut....what had happened,
tears were running down my face, my fists were clenched but
my arms could not move from my sides, and my heels were dug
into the carpet and were pushing back so hard in an effort to
escape the remembered straps that I almost tipped the couch
over backwards. And I was so angry at those men ... and at my
mother ... that I threw a 3yo's tantrum right there on the office
floor. And of course felt very embarrassed and chagrinned afterwards
- "That is what is called an abreaction" said my therapist.
"And it is a good thing. Because now all of that rage and
fear is dissipated and it will not come back". And that
was true! When I went back to work I no longer had panic attacks
when a child was crying in x-ray.... still wanted to comfort
that child ... but as the mature motherly type person I am...
not mixed up with the panicky angry child I was. And I was finally
able to cry out loud... for years I had been unable to make
any noise at all when I cried. And I was able to be more verbally
assertive... my jaws were finally unstrapped!
It appears to me that unless fear
and anger from traumatic events are allowed to find an outlet
... and expression of their intensity... these emotions will
continue to linger in the body and the psyche. And Oh yes our
bodies often remember things that our minds do not. Have you
ever gotten a massage and found yourself crying in the middle
of it? Probably an old memory is being released. Or smelled
a particular aroma and had an odd reaction to it? Smell is a
very primitive sense and reactions to scents can be very dramatic
- both in good ways and in not so good ways.
Even if you've never been through
severe trauma, anger can build up over time. It's sort of like
filling a water balloon. Many of us have been taught not to
express anger in any way...even expressing annoyance or feelings
of emotional hurt were frown upon. So we stuffed those feelings
down... poured them into the water balloon... until one day
the last drop went in and POW - the balloon explodes! And afterward
we (and often those around us) are left going "Huh? What
was that all about? Whatever was going on didn't warrant that
big a reaction!" It's like all those big and small annoyances,
peeves, irritations, vexations got distilled down to toxic sludge.
And the bursting of that sludge filled balloon can be detrimental
to relationships and your perception of yourself as a rational
So how can you release this type
of anger? Well different techniques will work for different
people. The basic formula (IMO) is intellectual awareness of
the causes of your anger + the connection of the emotions to
the experiences that created them + physical expression and
release of the emotions. IMO this work requires physical action
of some type. Doing this type of work in your head or by journaling
only goes so far and does not (again IMO) release the very real
physical residue of these intense emotions. It seems that you
have to really burn off the old nervous system chemicals that
fuel the Fight/Flight response before you can truly let go of
the anger/fear. A word of caution though... if you are not use
to intense emotional expression this may be scary the first
time you do it! My experience of this type of release is that
my body shakes - sometimes violently depending on the intensity
of the emotion - I cry, scream, rage - I feel dizzy, sick to
my stomach, and on occasion I hyperventilate. And afterwards
I tend to go to sleep for a good long time.
The following exercises all have
the same basic rules:
1-You may not hurt yourself or anyone else
2-You may not damage anything that is of value to you or anyone
3-Do the exercises in a place where you feel safe and where
you can be alone ... or have one trusted person with you.
As mentioned above you can work off
some of this kind of residual anger through physical exercise
- just connect an experience with the emotion and "act
it out' while you exercise like my Jazzercise experience above.
Punching on a punching bag or pillow can help. Throwing a ball
at a target; throwing stones into a lake, river or pond. Bicycling
- jogging - Physically demanding chores like chopping wood,
hoeing a garden, pulling weeds, etc. can also be useful for
working off anger from everyday annoyances.
For larger issues - or when you
are aware of a pattern of behaviors on the part of someone else
that erodes you self-esteem - or for anger involving a particular
person, place, or situation that has gone on for quite a while
- And particularly for situations or individuals where it is
not safe to express your emotions directly.
one cardboard box (pick a size that seems to you to "fit"
what you are angry about, use a separate box for each distinct
area of anger); dark colored marker, crayon, or paint; scissors;
a large empty space where you feel safe (basement, garage, barn,
1-Label the box with the person or
situation you feel angry at
2-Start writing on the box all that you feel about this particular
situation or person - get intense about it, scribble, write
large, put as much emotion as you can into the writing, write
all the things you KNOW you would never ever say in public.
I guarantee no one will ever be able to read what you write
on this box. Keep writing inside and outside of the box until
you run out of words
3-Now start kicking the box - kick it all around the space you
are in - yell at it -stomp on it - bash that box to smithereens
remember every incident where the person or situation caused
you to stuff down anger or fear. You know and I know that you
would never do this kind of physical punishment to a person...
this is just an inanimate box that is extending its usefulness
by being a focus for the release of this intense emotion.
4-When you have expended all of the energy you can about this
particular source of anger or fear on this box.... take up the
scissors and cut it into pieces - just chop it all up - shred
5-And finally take the pieces of the box and burn them in a
safe fire. As they burn, ask Spirit to take into safe keeping
any residual anger left. Pray for strength and for calmness.
Thank Spirit for giving you the opportunity to say good bye
to this toxic sludge of anger ...
6-Then go take a warm soaky bath, have a good meal and a good
sleep. Over the next few days feel any differences in your body.
Watch and see if you react differently to situations that might
have caused you anger in the past. Notice whether or not others
react differently to you.... and they will
you so much for sharing! I love your solution at the end. The
biggest problems arise from anger when it is denied or unexpressed.
Then it just feeds on itself and can cause untold damage. The
'box therapy' sounds like a superb way to express anger and
thereby release it with minimal damage to others. (Though the
person who's name is on the box will likely feel something energetically
while it's going on , so it would be good to set the intention
to heal oneself and not to hurt the other).
Copyright: Cinnamon Moon & River WildFire Moon (Founders.)
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