Angry outbursts - can you help?
October 31, 2019 7:47 PM   Subscribe

So I have been having angry outbursts (TW: self-harm, child abuse) lately after more than 20 years of not having them. This is odd because this year has been a really good one for me, the best year out of the last 10, easily. I want to know: - where this is coming from/why this is happening now - if anyone on here has been through this or something similar

I was a child victim of domestic violence, until I was 10, when my Dad decided to clean up his act, and things settled down. By then though I had learnt to deal with my anger through what I call angry outbursts - hitting myself with my fists and feeling overwhelmed with rage. I grew out of that, somehow, at about age 14, and have never had them since, despite an otherwise difficult life (school bullying, a very critical mother, a gambling addiction in the family, getting raped on campus, getting diagnosed with schizophrenia etc) to handle. I'm 37, so these things happened over a long stretch of time, not all at once, by the way.

Until lately that is - about 2 months ago I had one, and I was totally shocked, as it was clearly out of proportion to the anger I was justified in feeling. I had another one a month later, and since then I've had two on Friday, two yesterday and one last night. They always happen when I'm alone (I live alone and they have all been when I'm at home) and involve me screaming at the top of my lungs, or hitting myself with my fists (or both), and feeling overwhelmed with rage, just like I did as a child.

I thought I had grown out of these, and even more so because I thought my difficult life had taught me to be resilient. It's true, that on every occasion there has been reason to feel some anger, but nothing like the extent to which I have felt it. The reactions come out of the blue, I don't get any kind of warning, which obviously makes them more difficult to control. I am training myself to scream more and use my fists less, to avoid having bruises upon bruises, but I recognise this needs professional help, so I have sought out many local services (Lifeline, Sane Australia, Blue Knot Foundation etc). One or two have been helpful, most of them have made me feel worse.

I have also set up a lot of appointments with therapists, to try and find one who is a good fit. So I will definitely be exploring this with a therapist - once I get settled with one, it is just that it takes a while to get an appointment, in some cases there is a wait of several weeks or a month for the next available appointment.

I have done some googling and looked at anger management strategies, but I find they are mostly physical and sensory things, which don't really appeal to me when I am feeling overwhelmed with rage. Do you know of any ways to deal with anger that are more mental/emotional, rather than sensory/physical?

So what I am asking is:
Given as I have been enjoying a really good, stable and happy year, why would these reactions be coming out now? Is there any hope that this could possibly be a positive thing? One of the support services said it was happening because I was having a good year, and I would now feel safe to deal with the childhood trauma that got repressed - has anyone else had that experience?

Has anyone else experienced this or something similar? What helped you?

Apologies if my questions are quite broad, I'm still working out what I need to know!
posted by EatMyHat to Human Relations (6 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I experienced childhood trauma and have done quite a bit of therapy in my adult life.

One of the things that I've noticed is pretty much what's been described to you - as I got to feel safer and more in control of my life, strong feelings started to appear. This has happened in a few different phases over time. I have also experienced intense and disproportionate anger which I'm glad to say has passed. I still get strong feelings, usually sadness now, but they're not a great imposition anymore.

What's helped me is learning to have healthy boundaries, often an issue for survivors of childhood trauma I'm told, doing shitloads of therapy and seemingly endless work on trying to feel less broken. It seems to take much longer than you imagine it could, but then you notice yourself ever so slightly different one day and you start to realise that you're doing better. It's frustrating and amazing.

The most important thing for me in dealing with strong feelings has been to learn to observe them as separate to me rather than just be swept along by them. It was very hard at first but becomes easier. This has been one of the single most important steps for me and one that I learned from studying Buddhism rather than in therapy. I'm not a Buddhist but I think they have some great tools for life and they don't mind you using them.

I think it's wise to seek therapy and excellent that you're casting the net wide to maximise your chances of finding someone that works for you. I hope you find someone great because it really helps. I still get therapy at times and I am in my late 50s.

You've been though some very tough stuff and it may take a while to deal with it. You seem to be on the right path and asking all the right questions though. Kudos to you for getting here.
posted by mewsic at 9:16 PM on October 31, 2019 [10 favorites]

One of the support services said it was happening because I was having a good year, and I would now feel safe to deal with the childhood trauma that got repressed -

That is exactly what I was going to say.

has anyone else had that experience?

I certainly have. I don’t think it’s uncommon. Nor is it uncommon to wish these things would just stay repressed already. :-)
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:17 PM on October 31, 2019 [8 favorites]

I'm sorry you're going through this. I've experienced old bad stuff cropping up unexpectedly, when I would not have thought I was particularly susceptible; it's unnerving. For me, EMDR therapy helped a lot in the most recent instance. Not everyone has a good experience with this modality, though, and I don't know how accessible it is where you are. I'm glad you've made consultation appointments, and I hope you find a therapist who's good fit for you.

I also want to say, very, very gently: in recent posts in this forum, you've mentioned going through a few things that, had I experienced them, would've sparked an anger response in me (and my usual response to stressors is sadness and/or depression, not anger). You could be having a pretty great year, overall, without it being a perfect year. Wishing you well.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:59 PM on October 31, 2019 [4 favorites]

I thought I had grown out of these, and even more so because I thought my difficult life had taught me to be resilient

I've been there. Not with anger, necessarily, but other emotions that I felt I couldn't control, and - though I was in a "good place", was left thinking, 'why now??'.

I think, in some ways, when we're dealing with a lot of hard stuff, and it's coming from all directions, our minds unconsciously triage. And some of that stuff, our minds just say, "nope, I cannot and won't deal with this right now, we're just gonna tamp that right down, lock it up real tight and focus on these other things."

And that safe swings shut, and we forget about it, or try to forget about. And it can stay locked up tight for years, decades even.

And then one day, all that other stuff has settled down, and our subconscious starts looking around, and it's okay, finally, to feel again. Those emotions never went away, they just got buried really deeply. And now, things are stable, and existentially we're okay, our mind unlocks that safe and takes out those emotions, and it's like "woaaaahahh".

Because, you might find they have an immediacy to them that takes your breath away. But that makes sense - because you haven't been slowly processing them for ten years; they've been in stasis, and now they're thawing and it's just like you're experiencing that trauma all over again.

And they might leak out in funny or unpredictable ways. Obviously the anger, the hurt, the feelings of abandonment or betrayal or whatever can't latch on to the appropriate target now, 20 years later. So they might find weird or inappropriate targets.

For people that have been rigidly controlling their emotional states for a long time, I think this can be overwhelming, it can lead to feelings of a loss of control (which in itself might freak out right out, or irritate us); it can lead to feelings of shame, or helplessness or anger, or other emotions.

For me, it lead to feelings like "why aren't I over this?"; "why am I still dwelling on this, doing these behaviours?"; "have I been irretrievably broken?"

What helped was accepting that, you know, I'm imperfect. That I can't always control my feelings or even my reactions to things, and they won't always be 'appropriate' or how I want. And that I'm flawed, and a work in progress, and I'm trying my best, and it's okay to not measure up to my own standards. To feel and be vulnerable.

And you know what, over time, those emotions and emotional leaks have died down a lot. I did process them, in my own way.

To give you a more concrete example, I used to have recurring nightmares where I would have these incredibly violent reactions to things people - strangers and family/friends - did. Like, reactions out of all proportion to the offence, beating people to a bloody pulp for being rude on the train. The most disturbing part was I never felt anger in these nightmares. Just coldness as I did these things. They were profoundly disturbing to me. That kind of physical brutality is the antithesis of all I strive to be and believe in. I would wake up feeling awful, terrified that this was the "real" me, and I had a sociopathic monster that was waiting to come out.

I think these dreams were the result of a relationship I had as a child. And they were coming out because I was now far removed from that, and perhaps also because I was (or was becoming) a parent. Ultimately I acknowledged that I had a lot of fucked up feelings about that relationship and how it shaped the man I am. I tried to focus on my actions, not my thoughts. And, over time, the nightmares stopped. I haven't had one for maybe five years now.

Time, and letting the emotions get felt, helped. Sorry for the novel. Trust in yourself and your feelings.

I think you are very courageous and I admire you,
Best of luck.
posted by smoke at 12:13 AM on November 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

Don't forget that physiology is also a possible factor when you lose control and not merely trauma. Violence rates go up on windy days, and on humid days and on hot days. People who are in pain, or who are having trouble breathing, extremely hungry, or who are short of sleep are more irritable and more likely to lose self control. It's worth taking a look at these things. Is it possible that you were or are under more physical stress than normal lately?

You say that you are having a really good year. Is it possible that because things are going well you have been demanding more from yourself? Sometimes when things are going well we overload ourselves because it looks like we can do just a little bit more - not only hold down a job, but do a batch of laundry every night after getting home. Not only do a batch of laundry after work, but do an Inktober drawing. Having too many goals and not giving ourselves time to stop juggling can lead to too high levels of stress hormones.

Until you have a good handle on what is happening, why it is happening now and what your triggers are, I'm going to suggest that you do some extra self care in the line of letting yourself have more down time of the sort that leaves you relaxed and sleepy and cheerful. I don't know what that would be, but comfort food, early bed, coming home early, peaceful music and similar activities where you cherish yourself could be a helpful response to this. Someone has been hitting you and raging at you - it was you - but your inner psyche has both been hit and raged at, and is now being told - by you - that you have failed and are damaged because you lost self control.

If there was a kid and the kid lost it's temper and kicked the puppy it would be a normal glitch at a certain age. If the parent responding immediately protects the puppy and informs the child that this is totally unlike them and they can't do it again and then provides them with help calming down, the child has a good chance of being comforted and crying and saying sorry to the puppy and not doing it again. But if the adult rages at the child, hits the child and tells them they are a bad brat with no self control, the chances of the child hitting the puppy goes up.

In your situation now you are not only the child who hit the puppy and the puppy who got hit, but also the adult who is condemning you for hitting and saying the bad things to you. You hit yourself, you got hit and you lost your temper and have been escalating. Going into the situation actively to protect yourself from your own rage and affirming that you do not deserve to be hit, and that you can figure out your triggers and stop will help you to lower the intensity of your emotions so that you can control your rage and not do it more.

You want to watch for the next rage fit to be triggered and intervene, like the good adult who protects both the puppy and the child. That means observing yourself and being aware when the rage fit that results in self control starts to build and stopping whatever you are doing, and stopping whatever mental track leads to the rage before the words and the hitting starts.

It's complex. Let's say you are in the kitchen and feeling cranky and pressed for time and because you are hurrying you drop a bowl of salsa and then out comes the rage, "You stupid dummy!" * punch *. The time to intervene is not when the punch has already occurred, and not when the salsa goes slop, it's when the frantic in your head gets to the point where you are not enjoying cooking.

Learning to spot that pre-outburst tension is not necessarily easy, but it's the best place to start. It may be that the situation of being hungry and over tired and concerned about having time is the physiological trigger, but how do you tell when it's a normal after work supper rush and when you are at risk for having a rage fit? It's when you can't redirect your thoughts. If you get to a point where you can't step back from the counter for two minutes, and can't remember to do the self talk of, "Hey, this is okay, I have enough time and if I don't it's okay if I am late," then you are at risk of self harm.

If you are only noticing that you are about to rage when it is too late to successfully stop the rage fit , then you need to go back further and keep asking yourself through out the day, and doing calming strategies, over and over, all day long, doing self soothing internal talk and activities. You also need to schedule them. When you come home with only twenty minutes to get dinner you have to sit down quietly with a glass of milk for the first two minutes of that twenty. I'd suggest a hot cup of tea, but milk is quicker and you are short of time.

I can't help you with the deep seated issues, but I can affirm that everyone loses it at themselves sometimes so you are not in a cohort of unusually deeply damaged people. Everyone gets bursts of rage. Everyone sometimes turns them inward in ways that are unhealthy. Those of us who can figure out how to slow them down and redirect before they get really nasty are happier than those of us who are still struggling. Every time you don't lose control is a huge psychological reassurance to yourself that will go a long way to stopping the recurrences.

So today, take a few minutes when you are a bit tense to observe that you are in self control and are cherishing yourself and not going to hit yourself and don't want to hit yourself, that you are taking steps to prevent recurrences, that you are a good steward to your internal child because you typed out your ask, because you are aware that this is something you will not be continuing with or accepting. And do that over and over. It's good. You know how to stop doing it. You even managed to stop doing it when you were just fourteen, a really volatile age with lots of stresses. It's good. You can do it again.

You've already done the foundation work to stopping hurting yourself. You've recognized you are doing something, declared it totally unacceptable, and started working on finding strategies to stop doing it. Very often the solutions to these situations is not rehashing trauma, which can trigger more problems, but finding patterns and simple physical solutions. The over tired and hungry child is not left alone with the dog. The child is taught that when it is over tired and hungry it doesn't try to play with the puppy, it sits down to colour in the kitchen and has a glass of milk to keep it going until lunch can be served. There may or may not be additional issues going on, like that Stella at playgroup was mean, but until the puppy is safe and the child has lunch, discussing the things that have upset the child's equilibrium is more likely to increase the child's distress and trigger an outburst than it is to help the child understand emotionally that what Stella did and what they do to the puppy are separate things and need to stay separate. Discussions of that nature have to happen in safe spaces, and not where they will make it impossible to get your inner child fed something nourishing as soon as possible.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:17 AM on November 1, 2019 [11 favorites]

One thing that can help with the difficult job of figuring out what precipitates these is keeping private records of them.

I learned that I have to be extra careful the week before my period, for example. Knowing this let me remind myself that I can't let my hormone balance do my communication for me.

If you haven't had a good physical lately, that's a good idea too. Bodies and minds influence each other in unexpected ways.
posted by humbug at 2:13 PM on November 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

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