Your memory can be categorized into a few different functions and trauma can affect these functions in several different ways. This is because your memory is related to several different areas in your brain that serve different purposes. Trauma can affect your memory in significant ways that impact trauma recovery.
There are 4 different kinds of memory, each associated with different parts of your brain, and each affected slightly differently after trauma. The combination of trauma’s effects on the different areas of the brain associated with memory accounts for why survivors of trauma often have difficult remembering specific details of the trauma, or why they may have confusion about the order of events that happened around the time of the trauma.
Semantic Memory and Trauma
This kind of memory has to do with remembering general knowledge, such as knowing who the president is, knowing what an orange is, or knowing the difference between a truck and a car.
Semantic memory is associated with the temporal lobe and the inferior parietal cortex in the brain. Information from different parts of the brain, such as words, sounds, or images combine to form semantic memories. When trauma occurs, it can prevent the brain from combining this information correctly to form semantic memories.
This area of memory is particularly damaging for children exposed to trauma, because their brains are still in the growth and development phase and so trauma can have a devastating effect. Children exposed to trauma can literally have their brains re-wired to stay in survival mode, which can affect them when it comes to behavior and learning for years.
Episodic Memory and Trauma
Episodic memory has to do with how you remember specific events, including traumatic memories. This can include memories such specific words or actions that occurred during a traumatic assault, memories of the physical or emotional pain you experienced, or how scared you felt before, during, and after a traumatic event.
The hippocampus in the brain is the area associated with episodic memory and is involved in creating and recalling episodic memories. When a trauma occurs, episodic memory can become fragmented and the sequences of events can get jumbled up in your brain. You can think of it like your memories being in a file cabinet. They might be all in order before a significant traumatic event happens, but trauma is like someone opened up the file cabinet and threw all the files on the floor and mixed them up.
These episodic memories can become confused, and trauma survivors might even begin to doubt themselves when their memory doesn’t line up with certain facts such as the timeline of when the trauma happened or what happened shortly before or after the incident.
The impact of trauma on episodic memory is especially difficult when the trauma involved a crime and there is law enforcement involved. Law enforcement is always looking to sort out the facts and verify timelines when they are doing an investigation. When a trauma survivor’s memory doesn’t completely align with discoverable facts, law enforcement might question their version of events. This can leave survivors feeling self-doubt and sometimes re-traumatized by the law enforcement process.
Procedural Memory and Trauma
Procedural memory has to do with retaining memory about how to do things, such as remembering how to ride a bike or drive a car, or remembering the code for a gate or security system.
The striatum is the area of the brain associated with procedural memory. When trauma impacts this area of the brain, it can change patterns that were previously engrained in your brain. For example, you might find that you forget to do things that you normally do by habit, or you might forget certain details that you need to remember.
Trauma can even cause you to unconsciously tense up your muscles because you have been thrust into survival mode by the traumatic event, and this can cause pain to build up over time. Tension can become a habit that forms because you always feel on edge after a trauma. Particularly for people who have held onto trauma for many years and haven’t been able to heal from it, this physical pain can stay stuck in your body and manifest as aches, pain, inflammation, and muscle tension.
Emotional Memory and Trauma
Emotional memory has to do with the emotional response you get from triggers, such as feeling scared or anxious when you drive past the location where a traumatic incident happened. You could also experience emotional memories when you have to face a person who abused or assaulted you.
The amygdala is associated with these emotional memories surrounding traumatic experiences. Sometimes, a trigger can cause an onset of emotional memories to surface, and you may feel like you are re-living the event in your mind. This can cause significant emotional distress, fear that continues to re-surfaces, and recurring intrusive thoughts about the traumatic experience.
Emotional memories in response to triggers affect almost everyone who has experienced a traumatic event in their life. Coping with triggers is an integral part of trauma recovery and is one of the earliest challenges that survivors face after a traumatic event or situation. Emotional memories can last a lifetime and can significantly affect a survivor’s mental health and overall wellbeing.
Integrating Traumatic Memories in Trauma Recovery
All of these effects of trauma on the brain means that trauma recovery is about more than just trying to figure out how to move past the trauma. Trauma survivors need support to understand what is happening inside their minds so that they know what is happening. It’s hard for survivors to feel like they can move on with their lives when they face triggers all around them that constantly bring them back to the traumatic event.
Trauma survivors may feel like they are going crazy because of all of these responses going on in the brain. The brain is a highly sensitive and complicated organ, and it functions to keep every area of your body alive. That means that when it senses danger, it’s going to react in whatever way is necessary to keep you alive.
Your brain wants you to react to every trigger because it is protecting you from potential danger that would be traumatic again for you. This causes a lot of distress, because you might feel like you’re on high alert even when you don’t want to be. Learning to cope with and rationalize what is going on in your brain may take practice and support.
When it comes to memory, remember to think about the file cabinet and how much disarray has happened to cause your memories to be foggy or disorganized. You can try to put things back in order bit by bit, which might help you to integrate more of your memories and gain a fuller picture of what happened so that you can shape your own understanding about your experiences.
However, try to be kind to yourself by not furthering self-doubt when your memories are fuzzy and unclear. You may not remember every detail about the trauma that happened to you, but you know how your experiences made you feel, and that is even more important. Processing the feelings that you had before, during, and after a trauma is just as important, if not more so, than the details of the event itself.
Trauma recovery can be difficult because it’s never fun to have to sort through all your emotions and talk about difficult experiences. Working with an experienced trauma recovery specialist and gathering support from caring loved ones are the most important steps in recovering from trauma, regardless of the specifics of the trauma that you have experienced.
Trauma can have a widespread damaging effect on many different areas of a person’s life, from their emotional state to their physical health to their job performance and their outlook on life. This also includes the effects that trauma has on your relationships with other people, whether romantic or platonic.
The Impact of Trauma on Your Relationships
Trauma disrupts your sense of safety and changes the way that you view the world. Sometimes, the people in your life may not know how to react to the changes you have gone through, and this can have a profound effect on your relationships with those people. People that you thought were supportive may disappear, or change how they approach you. You may also have difficulty trusting others, which can make intimacy (both physical and emotional) hard to maintain.
Others may want to be supportive, but they may not always know how. This can cause strains in your personal and even professional life as you try to navigate all those changes while also trying to cope with the trauma you’ve experienced.
Furthermore, these effects from trauma can last for years, and the impact on your relationships can last just as long. Often recovery from trauma involves learning to trust the right people in your life and learning to set boundaries with others when needed.
Here are some of the ways that trauma can impact your relationships with other people:
- Other are uncomfortable with your distress
A lot of people don’t really know how to handle it when other people have strong emotions. These are the people who are more likely to walk out of the room if someone starts to cry rather than try to comfort the person crying. When you have survived a trauma, you need people around you who can tolerate your strong emotions when you’re having them. You may find that other people aren’t always able to handle it, and that can be hurtful and make trauma recovery more difficult.
- You may feel others don’t understand you
No one can really understand your direct experience after a traumatic event, because it was a personal experience that happened to you. You may hear people compare experiences they had to your trauma and it might feel like they don’t even come close to understanding the depth of your trauma. It’s hard to open up and even allow someone to be supportive when you don’t feel like they really understand how much of an impact this trauma had on you.
- You may be worried about being judged
Trauma survivors often experience feelings of guilt or shame related to trauma, especially if they have been abused. It may be hard to open up and share with others, even if you want to talk about it, because you worry that they will judge you, blame you, or look at you differently if they know certain details about what happened.
- You are not sure who to trust
When you have been traumatized, your safety has been threatened in some way or another. This can have a lasting impact on your ability to trust others. You may fear your own judgement of character, and be afraid of trusting the wrong person. This can make it hard to recognize when there is someone in your life that you perhaps SHOULD trust and open up to more.
- Others don’t know what to say or do
Just as people may be uncomfortable with your distressful emotions after a trauma, sometimes people want to help, but they just don’t know how. They may say something like “I’m here if you need me”, not realizing that it’s already hard enough for you to ask for help without having to figure out how they are supposed to support you as well. Although they may be well-intentioned, they may just not really know instinctively what you need, which might leave you feeling isolated.
- It’s hard to ask for what you need
It’s hard to ask for help under the best of circumstances, which makes it even harder when you’re trying to recover from a trauma and coping with the overwhelming symptoms you may be having. You also may not know what you need sometimes, so when people ask you how they can help, you may not know what to tell them. That can be frustrating for both people, because sometimes, all anyone can do is try to be there and listen when needed.
- Previously enjoyable things no longer bring happiness
You may have enjoyed doing certain activities with your friends or family or coworkers before the trauma occurred, and now you don’t have any interest in those things anymore. It can strain your relationships when you have to change your lifestyle to cope with triggers and manage your emotional reactions differently. People may not know if you want to be invited because they know you are coping with trauma, but it can still hurt if they don’t ask.
- Your needs have changed
It’s so important to pay attention to and honor your own needs when you are recovering from trauma. When you now need to take time to go to therapy appointments, or avoid certain places or people that are not healthy for your recovery, other people may not understand. It can be hard to try and prioritize yourself and your recovery, especially if you already struggled with that before a traumatic experience. Your relationships can be affected when your start to prioritize your own needs, but you have a right to communicate what you need for your own recovery process.
- Your emotions are all over the place
Trauma recovery can sometimes feel like a roller-coaster with your emotions. You may experience anger, fear, anxiety, depression, shame, or grief that can come unexpectedly. Even people close to you who know that you are struggling after a trauma may not know what to expect and may not always know how to react or support you. Sometimes you may need someone to comfort and console you, other times you may need to be distracted and cheered up.
- You cope differently
Maybe you used to like to go out to a bar with friends to relax and have fun, but now being in that environment is a trigger for you. Or perhaps you were once outgoing and now you feel the need to isolate yourself to feel safe. People may be confused about the changes they see in you. You don’t have to explain yourself to everybody, but do try to let the people close to you know what you’re going through. Use your best judgement to choose who and what you decide to share about what you’re going through.
How Can I Deal with These Changes?
It’s important to understand that relationships with others can be hard under the best of circumstances, so it is not unusual for these things to happen in your personal life when you are coping with a traumatic experience. The important thing to remember in your trauma recovery journey is that you have a right to seek out the support you need from the people who are best able to provide it. This means that you may have to work on setting boundaries with the people who are not providing you with great support after the trauma.
Although it can be hard to talk about all the things you’re coping with, you need support from the people that care about you. Being open about what you’re going through with the people that you can trust can help you receive the support that you need from them. It’s okay to talk about why you’re not up for doing the same things you used to, or you need space, or you need company, whatever it happens to be.
Trauma recovery is a journey, and it can take a long time, because there’s no real finish line. There’s no point at which you get to where the trauma ceases to exist because you can’t turn around and change the past. You can only move forward and try to give yourself the best chance of recovering from the trauma by choosing to seek support for your own needs.
When you find people that truly are supportive, make sure that you let them know that their support is important and helpful to you. It’s hard to know how to ask for support from your loved ones, but the ones who truly support you will be glad that you asked and talked about how you are handling everything.
For more on trauma recovery, see these posts:
How Trauma Affects Your Brain
5 Things Needed for Trauma Recovery
When a person experiences a trauma, the brain reacts in several different ways which can affect the life of that person moving forward. Just as a physical injury from a traumatic accident can affect your body at the site of the injury for years to come, your mind can be also be impacted for years after a traumatic incident, whether due to a physical or psychological trauma.
Trauma causes an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and fear of potential death, serious injury, serious loss (death of someone else), pain, or entrapment. These overwhelming feelings and fear cause the brain to react in ways to try and protect itself. Traumatic experiences can overwhelm the brain’s ability to cope using normal methods of stress relief, and thus alternative coping methods have to be developed, which can cause disruption in the lives of people trying to recover from trauma.
In order to understand why people may have certain reactions to traumatic events, it is important to understand what trauma really is and the range of ways that the brain reacts to the trauma.
Defining Traumatic Experiences
Trauma can occur in response to major onetime events such as natural disasters, a car accident, witnessing or being a victim of violence or a crime such as sexual or physical assault. It may also occur in response to chronic or repetitive experiences such as child abuse or neglect, military combat, neighborhood violence and crime, wartime atrocities, physically or emotionally abusive relationships, and long-term deprivation.
The most important thing to understand about trauma is that it is based on a person’s subjective experience. Two people could experience a similar incident but react in very different ways. The objective facts of the experience do not always cause the same reaction in everybody, so it’s important to understand that it is the individual that defines whether the experience was traumatic or not.
Whether a person perceives an incident as being traumatic or not often has to do with how much danger they were in during the event, whether loss of life occurred or could have occurred, whether it was a one-time incident or an ongoing experience, whether they have access to reasonable safety measures, how much support they have from friends and family, and whether they are validated or shamed for their experiences.
What are the Symptoms of Trauma
When a person has experienced a trauma, such as a sexual assault, a home invasion, or a significant loss, they may experience a wide range of symptoms in reaction to the trauma. Remember that these are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL situations. These symptoms may include:
- Emotional distress
- Distressful and intrusive memories
- Constant feeling of being in danger
- Sleep disturbances
- Emotional numbing or disconnection from others
- Inability to trust others
- Hyper-arousal (constant worry or checking behaviors)
- Physical reactions (headaches, muscle aches)
- Uncontrollable fear
- Confusion about timing or order of events
- Feelings of guilt, shame, or self-blame
- Difficulty concentrating
These are all indications that the brain is attempting to either prevent further trauma from happening again by keeping you in a constant state or arousal or protecting you from potential emotional distress by suppressing upsetting or painful emotions. It is also normal to experience an increase in these symptoms in reaction to another stressors that arises or surrounding a stressful time such as an anniversary or other significant date related to the trauma.
The Effects of Trauma on the Brain
When you have experienced trauma, your brain goes into a state of hyper-arousal, basically because your fight or flight response has been triggered and your brain reacts by trying to prepare you for potential danger. That potential for danger reverberates through your entire body, including your limbic system and your autonomic nervous system.
Your limbic system includes the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, and the amygdala, as well as other areas of the brain, and has to do with processing emotions and forming memories. The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating many bodily functions, including your arousal to emotional circumstances and the functioning of your autonomic nervous system (blood pressure, breathing rate, sweating, heart-rate). The hippocampus helps you convert what is happening in the present moment into long-term memories. The amygdala helps to control reactions to stimuli, such as aggression and fear.
When trauma triggers a stress reaction in your limbic system, it can feel overwhelming because your brain is not used to dealing with such a high level of stress, and so its functions can be negatively affected. This reaction in the brain accounts for why some trauma survivors have difficulty recalling the correct order of timing or certain details of the event.
It’s not because they are lying or exaggerating, which some trauma survivors are accused of when their memory is impaired due to a trauma. It is because the part of their limbic system responsible for creating and storing memories was flooded by stress and the entire system was reacting in ways to focus solely on surviving the traumatic situation. Unfortunately, this memory impairment in reaction to trauma is often used against survivors to try and minimize what happened to them or cause doubt in their account of the events.
The truth is that when traumatic events happen, your memory can get mixed up and certain events may not be organized correctly in your brain’s memory filing system, so to speak. This doesn’t mean that a survivor’s perception of events is invalid, it just means that their memory may have been damaged during the traumatic event, which can cause further confusion, shame, or embarrassment about the traumatic event.
Your autonomic nervous system includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, and it is responsible for alternately preparing you to handle a dangerous situation, and then calming you back down when the danger is over.
During a stressful event, the nervous system releases the stress hormone cortisol to give you a boost of energy to react to the dangerous situation. Normally, when a stressful even passes, the nervous system will then regulate your hormonal output and bring your back to your normal homeostasis. However, when a major trauma overwhelms your system in reaction to the perceived danger you are in that flood of stress hormones might remained heightened, leaving you feeling stuck in a constant state of hyper-arousal.
This state of hyper-arousal gets exacerbated when you are being constantly flooded with stressors, such as being stuck in an abusive relationship (where you feel you’re always walking on eggshells), or if you experience multiple triggers back to back (such as losing several loved ones in a short period of time). This relentless stress to your system causes your brain to react in a way that can feel like you are constantly on the look-out for the next potential danger or loss, and can make it hard to get back to a period of relative emotional stability.
When to Seek Treatment for Trauma
Trauma recovery can take time, and there is no hard and fast time-line for how long it takes for each individual. However, if you have been experiencing the symptoms described above for more than 3 months after the initial trauma, you may need to seek out professional help. Remember that it is normal to have these emotional reactions to trauma, but talking with someone in a safe environment can help you to process your fears and the emotional damage that you have endured.
If you have people who you know are supportive and understanding, it can be helpful to talk to those who care about you and explain what you are going through. It can be hard to reach out for help, but it is so helpful when you feel supported by those who truly care about you. Talking about trauma can be hard, so turning to a professional therapist or a support group for people who have been through similar traumas can be incredibly healing and help you get to the next level in your recovery.
If you are experiencing any of the following after a trauma, please consider seeking out a professional with experience in trauma recovery:
- Severe fear, anxiety, or depression
- Trouble with functioning at home or work
- Disturbing nightmares or flashbacks
- Avoiding more and more things to prevent distress
- Unable to talk about the trauma with caring friends or family
- Feeling overwhelmed or frozen in life and unable to move forward
- Abusing substances to feel relief from emotional distress
Trauma recovery involves processing memories related to the trauma and the feelings that were triggered during and after the event. An informed trauma therapist can help you to face feelings and memories that have caused you distress and discharge some of the emotional energy or anger you may feel related to the traumatic event. You may also learn new ways to cope with overwhelming feelings and learn how to re-build your ability to assess safety and build trusting relationships.
Trauma disrupts your body and your brain’s ability to feel safe and at ease. Your nervous system may feel like it is stuck in overdrive and you can’t calm down or feel balanced. In order to dispel that excess energy and feel safe again, you may have to go through some uncomfortable things, like talking about painful memories. Don’t push yourself to do things you’re not ready for, but recognize that healing takes time and you don’t have to go through it alone.
For more on trauma recovery, see this post on 5 Things Needed for Trauma Recovery.
In this post for my emotional intelligence series I’m going to focus on selective self-control. Selective self-control refers to our ability to control ourselves in some circumstances, but not in others. In some ways it can be a cognitive distortion because we often have more control than we realize, but we may be subconsciously choosing not to use our control sometimes, and this can become a problem, especially in our relationships with other people.
Selective self-control is something that I have to challenge my clients on sometimes, because while I understand that it can be hard to practice self-control sometimes, it is my job as a therapist to help my clients find their power and learn to utilize it, and self-control is about power. Selective self-control tells you that you can’t control your reactions to certain circumstances, and then you feel helpless about your ability to exert power over your own behavior.
When you feel powerful, you feel in control. However, feeling powerless often results in people acting or thinking in ways that hurt them more. One thing that I try to encourage my clients to do is to evaluate their choices based on how much power they have in a situation. By this I mean you have to constantly be assessing where you can use the power that you have and what you have to let go of when you don’t have power.
What Selective Self-Control Looks Like
A good example of our use of selective self-control can be found in the differences between how we act at work versus how we act in our personal life. Most of us know that we have to maintain our self-control in the workplace even when things get frustrating, or your supervisor has done or said something disrespectful, or you have to complete task that you find boring or pointless. It’s not fun, but it’s necessary.
You know that if you refuse to do your work, or you talk back aggressively to your disrespectful boss that you will end up suffering some consequences that you might not be prepared for. You don’t want to lose your job, so you practice self-control in this environment in order to prevent back-talking or going-off on your supervisor, and you suck it up and do what has to be done because you want to keep your job. If you have ever had to do this at work then congratulations, you have self-control!
However, the same people who can control themselves at work and avoid negative consequences in that situation can find it difficult to maintain self-control in their personal lives. They may get frustrated with their partner or their children and start yelling or getting aggressive. They may slack off doing things that need to get done at home because there’s no one to dole out consequences if they don’t finish something. Or they may tell themselves things that aren’t true, like “I can’t control myself when I feel angry”.
If that happens to you, then you might be using selective self-control. It’s true that in a workplace environment you may not always have power, because you might have a supervisor or someone “above” you in the hierarchy that you have to defer to and listen to their direction. However, as adults we usually have no such person in control of us in our personal life. It’s our choices that control how we handle problems or resolve conflicts.
If the difference between when you can control yourself and when you can’t is based on whether there is someone there to dole out consequences, then you are selectively choosing to only respond to consequences, and then relinquishing your control at other times. This is using selective self-control because your self-control is based on whether you will suffer consequences or not.
The strange thing is, you likely have MORE control in your personal life than you do at work, because if you are an adult, then you mostly answer to yourself. Yet people often claim that they can’t control themselves in their relationships, in their daily habits, or in setting and following through with their own goals.
To further this example, I will expand on something that I saw fairly frequently when I was working with military families as a contractor. I would see sailors that would be excelling at work: getting accolades from their Command and moving into leadership positions, or at a minimum, they would be staying out of trouble at work despite working in very intense, frustrating, and sometimes overwhelming conditions. Yet when they would get home, they would have aggressive confrontations with their family, either losing their temper with their children or taking out their frustrations on their spouse.
When talking about the changes they wanted to make, they often stated that they felt out of control when they lost their temper and yelled at their spouse or their kids. They were able to maintain their self-control at work, pushing through very stressful conditions and duties, dealing with disrespect from their CoC, because they knew the consequences of losing control in that environment would be more than they were willing to pay.
Yet at home, there was no one there to deliver such consequences. The consequences they suffered due to losing control at home were mostly in the form of a loss of emotional connection with their spouse, which wasn’t an immediate and tangible consequence. This wasn’t enough to motivate them to maintain their self-control in the home environment.
There is another part to this problem of selective self-control, and that is the issue of diminishing motivation. We often lose motivation and lose self-control when we have been struggling to maintain control for too long. This happens frequently with dieters. You may start a diet, restrict your food choices, and try to control what you intake. You maintain control for a while, yet eventually, you break down. Why?
It takes energy, concentration, and motivation to maintain self-control. You have to resist your impulses, change your habits and swallow your pride at times. This always is going to require some effort. The more temptations, triggers, or stressors you experience, the more your self-control is diminished. This is why it can be hard when you have been maintaining control all day at work and then one more frustrating thing happens at home and you blow up at your spouse or raid the pantry. Researchers have suggested that self-control is a limited resource and that maintaining control at a high level depletes our self-control.
How to Master Self-Control
So what can we do? If we know that self-control is possible because we make choices to control our own behavior and resist our impulses all the time, but we also know that self-control gets depleted and staying too rigid for too long causes us to lose motivation for self-control, what is the solution?
Emotional intelligence is all about using our knowledge to help us make decisions about how to handle our emotions. So we have to confront the fact that our use of self-control may be selective at times. It’s not correct to say that you have no self-control when in reality you are using your self-control every day in different ways. Self-control keeps you from driving someone off the road when they cut you off, gets you out of bed when you want to sleep in, and stops you from burning the building down when someone steals your stapler. However, armed with the knowledge that we will eventually lose motivation to maintain that control we can take some preventative measures to help us build and practice real self-control.
Here are 10 tips to help you master self-control so you can practice and maintain your own power:
- Stress relief
When you’re stressed, you have less strength to resist your impulsive behaviors, so make sure you’re engaging in stress-relieving practices such as exercise, fun activities you enjoy, and looking at unhealthy habits that might be contributing to stress (such as lack of sleep).
- Practice Assertive Communication
When you are too passive, your feelings and frustrations will build up inside you, causing more stress and reducing your overall sense of self-control. Work on building your assertiveness skills so you feel more powerful in all areas of your life.
- Avoid Avoidance
Avoiding problems doesn’t make them go away, so try to practice addressing issues when they come up instead of avoiding them because you don’t want to face the discomfort of confronting the problem.
- Make room for rewards
If you never feel like your efforts at self-control will pay off, you’ll lose motivation, so reward yourself in positive ways when you’ve accomplished something you’re proud of. If you’re working on a long-term goal, set small goals that bring you closer to your big goal and then reward yourself periodically as you accomplish those smaller goals.
- Remind yourself of your goals
Keep your eye on the prize when it comes to those long-term goals and remind yourself what all this self-control is for. You’re practicing self-discipline so that you can accomplish a goal, whether that’s pushing for a health outcome or improving your relationship with your partner. Keep that goal in mind when you feel frustrated and want to give in to your impulses.
- Remind yourself of intangible consequences
Even if your spouse or partner can’t fire you, you can still lose their respect and affection. They might not leave you today, but if you can’t control yourself and understand the consequences of your actions, then you might lose the people you care about eventually. Remind yourself that just as goals can take a long time to come to fruition, so can consequences. People don’t usually leave their partner after one big argument, but they might leave after years of feeling intimidated or disrespected by the person who says they love them.
- Choose to be in control
Remember who has the power and who is on control. You won’t always be able to have control over everything that happens, particularly in the workplace or in other areas when you’re not the ruling authority. But you always have choices about how to conduct yourself and how to handle conflict that comes up. When you are in control, you will know it because you’ll feel confident about your choices. Often, it’s when people give in to their lowest impulses that they feel “out of control” or ashamed of themselves. Recognize your power over your own choices and discover what real power feels like.
- Build frustration tolerance
Little things are always going to come along that frustrate you. We all have to build frustration tolerance skills, which will help you from succumbing to road rage when someone cuts you off in traffic. Read more about how to build frustration tolerance in this post.
- Don’t try to be perfect
Think progress, not perfection. No one can be perfect all the time. Whether it’s with your diet, your career goals, or your personal development, making mistakes is how we learn and get better. Trying to be perfect will just result in that diminishing motivation phenomenon, so give yourself credit for your accomplishments and practice gratitude for the progress you’ve already made.
- Find your joy
Everyone deserves to enjoy their own life, so think about what brings you joy and try to work that into your life in any way possible, big or small. When you get to experience what brings you joy you will be more motivated to do what it takes to get you there again. This is the part where all your hard work and self-control pays off, so when you find your joy, revel in it and soak it up.
Self-control doesn’t have to be selective. When you give yourself credit for what you already know you can do you will feel more confident about your ability to maintain self-control. I’m willing to bet that you have practiced self-control in some areas of your life already, so you know what it feels like to suppress that urge to tell off your boss. You just have to apply the same skills you used then to other areas of your life. Practice these tips and build that mental muscle so you feel capable of controlling your impulses and building your own sense of power.
Anger is an emotion that we all experience, but learning to manage anger is an important skill to have when it comes to developing and practicing emotional intelligence. Part of having high functioning emotional intelligence is understanding and coping with all of our emotions in a healthy way, including anger. Anger management can be a problem for some people, but there are definitely some skills that you can work on to help with this problem if you are one of those people.
In order to build and maintain strong anger management skills, it can be helpful to look at where your anger is coming from, how you react to anger, and what you need in order to gain control of your anger. It is also important, though, to understand what anger is and why it is so hard to manage for some people.
Why Do We Get Angry?
Anger is an emotion, of course, but it is also what therapists sometimes term as a secondary emotion. This means that anger is an emotion that we experience in reaction to another emotion. For example, you can feel disrespected, and then feel angry about that. You could also feel frustrated, betrayed, overwhelmed, irritated, or in grief and feel angry in response to those emotions as well.
Part of anger management is learning to tap into the primary emotion that your anger is in response to. When you feel angry, you need to acknowledge and cope with that anger, but ultimately you will need to understand what the primary emotion is that you are having, because that is the emotion that still needs to be dealt with. Understanding WHY you are angry is just as important as learning how to react to that anger in a healthy way.
How to Build Anger Management Skills
When I work with clients on anger management, we work on managing anger through basically a 4-part process. Here is a breakdown of the process that we go through to learn anger management skills and gain control over anger:
- Learn what your triggers are
First you need to work on learning what triggers your anger most often. Whether it is situations that happen at work, small daily frustrations that overwhelm you, feeling disrespected by how someone speaks to you, or feeling ridiculed in some way, learn to identify what your triggers are so that you can be prepared to face them when they happen. You WILL get triggered in life, so we all have to understand what situations are most likely to cause us to react.
- Develop coping skills to deal with your reactions to anger
Everyone needs to have a good arsenal of coping skills to manage overwhelming emotions, including anger. You might need to practice taking a timeout to go for a walk when you feel out of control, learn deep-breathing techniques, go pound it out in the gym, or take up journaling as a form of self-expression. It is fine to remove yourself from a situation to give yourself a chance to calm down. Find out what works for your by trying some different things, whether that involves releasing that angry energy in an appropriate way or learning self-soothing techniques to calm yourself down in the moment when you feel very reactive.
- Understand the primary emotion from which your anger is coming
Once you’ve had a chance to calm down, you need to examine what the primary emotion is that you are reacting to. Did you feel disrespected by something that was said? Did you feel dismissed or ignored in some way? Are you feeling irritable because you are in grief? Learn to frame your anger as a secondary emotion and always try to identify what the underlying emotion is that you are having.
- Learn to express and address the primary emotion when addressing your anger or when in conflict with others
When you understand the primary emotion you are having, think about how to resolve the anger you are feeling by expressing that emotion in an assertive way. You can address the anger too, just be sure that you are not ignoring the root of the problem, or you will still feel angry, hurt, and frustrated. You might need to say something like “I feel angry because you called me an ugly name, which was hurtful and I felt very disrespected”. You are not denying the anger or pretending it doesn’t exist or isn’t valid, but you are taking it a step further by understand what triggered your anger and why you were having that emotional reaction. Ultimately, you need to resolve the feeling of being disrespected, not just the anger that was your reaction.
How to Know When You Need Help With Anger Management
Some people who experience significant anger management problems feel very out of control when they get angry. In extreme cases, some people even black out or go into explosive rages. When anger has become this overwhelming, it is important to seek professional help because your anger may be rooted in serious emotional traumas.
Sometimes anger becomes a reactive response over a long period of time because anger is an easily accessible emotion. We often deal with difficult emotions like rejection, fear, and insecurity by masking them with anger. Accessing and expressing that anger is easier and quicker than dealing with those other emotions, which can be scary.
Oftentimes it takes going through a process of understanding the very beginnings of your anger problem in order to heal and move forward. Anger can have deep roots that may have originated from childhood traumas, the type of messages you received from your family or by what you saw modeled in your home growing up. This means that you may have developed the use of anger as a coping mechanism when other forms of emotional expression were not safe for you.
When you are at the point where anger is affecting your relationships with people in all areas of your life, or has caused you problems in your employment and/or resulted in legal issues, you probably need to look into getting some personal attention from a therapist or from an anger management group to help you gain control over your anger. If you have faced significant consequences in your life due to anger, such as losing relationships, a job, property, or your freedom, then you need to seek help.
Having Real Control with Anger Management
You want to be in control of your anger, not have your anger control you. Being in control of your emotions rather than having your emotions control you is part of emotional intelligence. Sometimes we mistakenly think that aggressive expressions of anger put us in control because we can intimidate others into doing what we want or forcing them to listen. In reality, though, aggression towards others doesn’t result in real control. In fact, many people often feel ashamed about their behavior when then act out in aggression when they are angry.
If you find that you can control your anger at some times, but in other circumstances you feel out of control, then I would challenge you to think about whether you are using selective self-control of your anger management. For example, if you can control your anger at work, because you know you will get fired if you act out in aggression towards your boss (even though you may want to), but you then act aggressively towards your partner at home and say you can’t control it, then you might be using selective self-control.
If you can control your anger at work, then you CAN control your anger. You can use the same skills you have to use at work to keep yourself employed when you are dealing with problems at home. If you cannot control yourself regardless of the circumstances or potential consequences, then you probably need to seek counseling or other professional help in order to gain real control over your emotions and reactions.
The goal of anger management is not to never feel angry. The goal is to be able to express anger appropriately and without aggression towards other people. You can absolutely express anger in an assertive and appropriate way. You will actually feel more in control when you learn how to manage your reactions with strong coping skills, tap into the primary emotions you are reacting to, and express yourself assertively to address both the anger as well as the primary emotion you are having (ie: frustration, rejection, fear, or sadness).
Building a healthy response to anger will help you in all areas of your life, because you will be in control. When other people can push your buttons and you aren’t in control of your response, then it’s almost like they can control you like a puppet. Who is really in control at that point? You don’t want other people’s behaviors to dictate to you what your reaction is. Emotional intelligence is about understanding your own emotions and being in charge of how you react to those emotions, so practice using the 4 steps outlined above to help you gain control over anger and put yourself back in control.