Raw, Primal Protective Reflex
TBI anger is unlike any other kind of anger. It taps into our primal instinct to protect ourselves, like any wounded, cornered animal, with a burst of adrenaline. This is the source of the raw, primal strength, energy, focus, and coordination. Once it hits, it can not be stopped, only redirected in a safe direction.
It’s a primal response we have to protect us from sabertooth tigers and other immediate physical threats. For most of us, those do not regularly exist in our world, but our biology interprets the onslaught of overwhelming input on our brain as an imminent threat. Our biological reaction kicks in, releasing adrenaline. But there is no immediate physical threat. So we often (and very wrongly) assume those around us must be the imminent threat. This is why some TBIers are verbally or even physically violent to those who love them. The truth is there is no threat. The “threat” is damaged neural connections inside our brain that make it so we can’t handle input from our own senses.
Why does Primal Rage Happen in TBIers?
How to Handle TBI Anger
First, it’s important to know that typical anger management techniques do not work. They fail to recognize that the anger happens because of damage to the brain.
Second, trying to reason with someone in a TBI rage only makes it worse. Why? Because in their focused “fight or flight” state, you are standing against them and are thus mistaken for the immediate threat. Not accurate, but still what happens.
There is, however, hope.
First: Make sure everyone is safe
If the TBI anger bursts get physically directed at people, get immediate help until the survivor learns to direct their rage in a safe direction. If you feel like you are in danger, you are. Getting safe may just be the motivation your TBIer needs to learn how to address their rage
Second: Create a Sanctuary
A sanctuary is a room set up to minimize the stimulation on the survivor. Mine has a sound dampening door, increased sound proofing between me and the rest of our home, and is where I do most of my writing and other creating.
Sanctuary is where I go to recover when TBI rage hits.
Third: Learn to Direct your Anger Safely
This is challenging, but as we’ll see it cooperates with our natural biology
Pay attention to what it feels like immediately before an anger burst. When you feel it coming on, drop everything you are doing and get to your sanctuary as safely and quickly as you can. Do not engage the people or animals around you or who happen to be in your way. If you must hit something, hit a wall or slam a door. Doing these things gives your adrenaline somewhere to go. when you get to your sanctuary, crash and recover.
Why this works: This is your fight or flight response you’re experiencing. It either wants to fight the immediate danger, or flee to safety. Your sanctuary is safety, so its natural to direct your rage toward safety and away for harming others. Trying to stop the rage (you, or those around you) only makes it worse.
This is something you can learn to do fairly quickly. It is also the stepping stone toward learning the next step, which can take years to learn. In the meantime, whenever your rage hits, directing it’s purpose toward getting you to safety will keep you and those you love safe.
Forth: Learn to “Shut Down” rather than Rage
If the last step was hard, this one is even harder. The previous step at least had biology on it’s side
Once it starts, there is no stopping a TBI rage other then letting it run its course. I know. I tried for years. THe trick is to stop it BEFORE it starts.
We only get one shot at this with each anger burst. The window of opportunity to stop the rage is when I know it’s coming but before it arrives. Typically this is far less than a second.
Remember how step three above was a stepping stone to this step? Learning what it feels like immediately before the rage burst is key.
That feeling of impending rage is my “trigger” to shut down. Like a robot. whatever I’m doing, I simply slump to the floor and turn off. I do not move until help comes to help me to my sanctuary.
Doing this is a pure act of the will. Nothing in our biology tells us it’s good to shut down in the face of danger. But the benefits of doing so are numerous.
First I don’t verbally or physically threaten anyone when I’m shut down. I’m a completely non-threatening lump on the floor.
I’ve taken years to reach the point I can feel it and choose to “shut down” rather than let the rage hit. This takes a lot of work and effort to learn what it feels like immediately before the rage, and choose to make that a trigger that always, without question, causes me to shut down. If I think about it, it fails. And sometimes the rage is too fast for me. But for the most part I am able to now shut down.
Why is “shutting down” better than a rage? First, rage doesn’t benefit anyone. Second, the rage never happens. The adreniline is never released. I don’t have any burst of energy to deal with, no “crash” after the adreniline wears off, and no 2–3 days or more of recovery from the rage itself (let alone whatever overstimulation caused it). My muscles do not constrict, lmiting blood flow to my brain, causing more things to overcome to recover.
Shutting down is the right thing to strive for. It’s also amazing hard. It took me years to reach the point that it is my natural response to impending rage. As soon as I feel my brain getting overwhelmed, I shut down. I do not think about it because if I do, it’s too late, and I’m back to fleeing to my sanctuary in a rage. Hard as it is, shutting down is well worth learning.
What is your experience with TBI rage? How have you handled it? What have your found works for you or your survivor? Use the comments to share your experience and wisdom.