Constructive vs. Destructive Anger in People With PTSD

Exhibit Anger Without Being Self Destructive

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It is common for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to experience anger. In fact, anger is so prevalent in people with PTSD that it is considered one of the disorder's hyperarousal symptoms. Although anger can lead to unhealthy behaviors such as substance use or impulsive behavior the emotion in and of itself is not bad.

Anger is a valid emotional experience that can provide you with important information about yourself, your environment, and how you relate to others.

The Facets and Functions of Anger

Certain emotions may feel unpleasant or uncomfortable, but they serve an important purpose. Emotions are essentially our body's way of communicating with us. They allow us to communicate information to other people, give us information about our environment, prepare us for action, and deepen our experience of life.

Anger is an emotion that is often about control. When we experience anger, it's often our body's way of telling us that that we feel like things are out of our control or that we have been violated in some way.

Anger can motivate us to try to establish or reestablish control (or at least a sense of control) over a situation. Given this function, it makes sense that anger is believed to be an underlying facet of PTSD and is frequently experienced by people with the disorder.

Experiencing a traumatic event can make you feel violated and constantly unsafe. You may feel as though you have little control over your life. PTSD symptoms may make you feel like danger is everywhere and that there is no escape.

The extreme fluctuations of internal experience that occur in PTSD (for example, constantly shifting between emotional numbing and intense anxiety) can also make you experience your inner life as chaotic and out of control.

These feelings, in turn, can cause anger. Anger is a valid emotion that can often be constructive, but it also has the potential to be destructive.

Constructive Anger
  • Can be healing

  • Not as strong

  • Can be managed

  • Can improve situations

Destructive Anger
  • Can cause harm

  • Frequent and strong

  • May be uncontrolled

  • Can have negative consequences

Constructive Anger

In her book Seeking Safety (a well-known treatment developed for people with PTSD and substance use) Dr. Lisa Najavits describes constructive anger as anger that can be healing.

Constructive anger is often not as strong as destructive anger. It is also something that can be explored or examined to help you better understand your situation, other people, and yourself. Further, for anger to be constructive, a person must also be aware of it.

Constructive anger is something that can be managed. But to do so, you have to recognize your own needs and the needs of others.

As an example of constructive anger, let's say that a friend cancels an important lunch date with you at the last minute.

By approaching your anger and listening to what it is telling you, you might be motivated to talk to your friend about how you were upset by the last-minute cancellation and come up with ways to make sure that it doesn't happen again. Here, your anger is being used to take control of the situation and maintain your self-respect.

Destructive Anger

Destructive anger is expressed in an unhealthy way and causes harm. For example, a person may act out aggressively towards others. The anger might also be turned inward, resulting in deliberate self-harm or substance use.

Destructive anger tends to be frequent and strong. In PTSD, these feelings can be even more intense. Sometimes, a person may be unaware of their anger or, if they are aware, they may try to suppress or avoid it.

When anger is not attended to, it usually will only get stronger. As the emotion grows, the likelihood that it will be expressed in an unhealthy, potentially harmful way increases.

Destructive anger can work in the short-term because it releases tension; however, it is associated with long-term negative consequences.

For example, if you were to respond to your friend (from the example above) by yelling at him or cutting off all ties with him, you could lose a friendship and an important source of social support. If you took the anger out on yourself, you wouldn't learn how to adequately cope with the situation, increasing the likelihood that it would occur again in the future.

Managing Your Anger

Anger can be a difficult emotion to manage, especially if you have PTSD. However, if you listen to your anger and attempt to connect with the information that it is giving you, it will help you learn to better respond to your environment. Understanding why anger is present often makes it feel less chaotic and unpredictable.

There are healthy ways of managing anger and any other intense emotion you might feel overwhelmed by. For example, self-soothing skills or taking a time-out.

Finally, seeking out social support can also be an effective way to cope with and manage anger. Other emotion regulation strategies can also help. As previously discussed, the Seeking Safety method includes coping strategies for anger as well as the other symptoms of PTSD.

If you have been pushing down your anger for some time, it may initially feel very uncomfortable to approach it. It also may feel very intense or out of control.

However, the more you approach your anger, listen to it, and respond to it in a healthy way, the more your tolerance for anger will increase, and the long-term negative consequences of not dealing with anger will decrease.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.