Trauma - Why do I feel angry and find it hard to feel safe and connected?
I often get asked the following by people affected by trauma: Why do I feel angry or numb? Why do I find it so hard to feel safe and connect? So let me introduce you to the steps of three states.
Imagine steps that represent three distinct physiological states that humans experience. The bottom step is the freeze/collapse state, the second one represents the activated state of fight/flight and at the top, there is safety and connection.
So let's imagine the following scenario. You are sitting on the top step feeling safe and connected and you encounter a threat. Neutralising a threat or escape requires more resources, so you step down to the powerful physiology of fight/flight. Your heart is racing, the blood shifts from your internal organs to your limbs and your body surges with energy ready to fight or flee.
Normally, this activated survival response may have been effective, you were able to take that one step back to the top, let out a big sigh of relief and feel safe again. But today is different — the threat is too powerful. Your body realises that to fight is to be destroyed, and to run is to be overtaken. All the energy your body has reallocated to survival is of no value in this situation.
So, you move down the steps into the freeze/collapse state. It's the only survival option available. If you're quiet, small, compliant, there's at least a chance that you'll survive. If you please and appease your oppressor, you may survive. As you collapse at the bottom of the steps, you feel more alone than you've ever felt before. Disconnected. Powerless.
Now, let imagine this adaptive survival response works and you survive. Or perhaps you continue pleasing and appeasing. You're surviving, but you're not safe. You're alive, but you're powerless. You dream of being safe again, of feeling connected.
The top and bottom steps share a similar quality of being immobilised. When we feel in the arms of a partner, we're immobilised within safety and connection. At the bottom of the ladder, we're immobilised in fear. Holding your breath in fear is not the same as the long exhale that happens when you sink into safety.
This is what I teach clients. You can't jump from the bottom step of freeze/collapse to the top step of safety and connection. You have to go THROUGH the activated state of the middle step.
This is why people affected by trauma feel angry. It can be scary to move into the activated state. This fear is why trauma survivors sometimes feel forced to live in freeze/collapse state. This is also why it's common to burst out of freeze/collapse into an activated state. To change the risk/reward survival math is hard. An aggressive response can be overwhelming and often results in retreating back down the step.
If you feel angry and don't understand why, take a moment to consider where you are on the steps. Aggression may not make sense if you're already safe. If you want to know more about my approach, feel free to use the link in the comment box below to schedule a free 15-minute telephone consultation.