Friday, April 10, 2015

How I Harmed Myself With My Anger and 9 Ways Gardening Calms Anger

I am a survivor of sex abuse as a child and date rape as a young adult.  My whole life has been occupied with coming to terms with these wounds and learning healthy coping skills to heal them.  One of the symptoms of abuse that I struggle with is outbursts of anger.  One coping skill I am learning to rely on to heal myself is gardening.  Gardening lifts me up from seas of sadness and calms me through storms of anger.

Anger is one of the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Survivors of child abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence often suffer from PTSD just as combat veterans do.  Anger is a normal part of the healing process, but if we inflict our anger on others, we can also ruin our relationships with friends and family and cause problems for ourselves at work and school.  While anger over abuse inspires us to fight for justice, we need to channel and control our anger so we don't harm ourselves or others.

People who express anger by raising their voices or criticizing or blaming others for problems often find themselves in high conflict relationships.  If we inflict our anger on others in order to get them to do what we want or simply because we have strong emotions, we often leave them feeling abused.  Our anger arouses in others feelings of emotional pain, frustration, anxiety, AND anger.  If our anger is brief, the pain and anxiety we inflict on others is also brief and easily forgiven. But if our anger goes on and on and on, the damage we do to others and to ourselves and to our relationships increases exponentially. 

What do you feel when someone shouts at you or criticizes you?  When someone shouts at me for more than a few minutes, I don’t want to be around him.  I don’t want to do what he wants me to do.  Sometimes I do what he wants because I fear his anger, but that fear kills my love for him.  For example, when fear became the dominant emotion I felt in the context of my marriage, I had to leave my husband because I never felt safe around him.  Love wasn’t possible anymore.

But my best example for both the problems caused by anger and what to do to calm down is not my former husband, but me.

As a survivor of child sex abuse and rape I never suffered from full PTSD, but I did suffer from an increased susceptibility to anxiety and depression.  I also learned to meet the needs of others instead of meeting my own needs.  However, I felt angry and frustrated when I was always trying to meet the needs of others while ignoring my own.  I especially felt hurt and angry when others seemed not to know or care what my feelings and needs were.  When I was finally pushed to the brink, I pushed back with anger.  Neither reaction -- giving in to others or expressing anger myself -- solved my problems with other people.  

As many survivors do, I married before learning healthy relationship skills.  I married a man who gave me lots of flowers, who engaged in intellectual conversations about world affairs and current events, and who shared my love of ethnic cuisines and foreign and art films.  Unfortunately he had some flaws.  He frequently yelled at me, criticized me, or blamed me for our problems.  Moreover he did this from the beginning of our relationship, but I had endured so much emotional abuse from other people that he seemed pleasant in comparison.  But over time the lightness of his enormous smile dimmed, and the darkness of his words and tone of voice dominated our interactions.  We attended marriage counseling for a year and a half but never managed to solve our relationship problems.  So I divorced him.  Unfortunately divorce did not end the conflict between us.  It simply metamorphosed into new forms, especially the copious e-mails he sent to me demanding parenting schedule changes or criticizing me and accusing me of wrongdoing as a mother.  And then my children reached their tweens, the age at which children begin individuating from their parents.  If I allowed myself to be provoked into shouting at my children, I risked finding a nasty e-mail from Dad in my inbox criticizing me for being an abusive mother.

So I really had to learn to calm myself down in the midst of multiple storms, to not react to provocation with anger.

At least when coping with my ex-husband, I could turn off the computer and take a break from his e-mails, but if one of my children was angry at me, I had nowhere to go.  I had to calm myself down here and now at home while my child was still angry.

If I didn't calm myself down in the present moment, if I allowed myself to get upset and remain upset with one of my children, I did the following things:

1.  I wounded my child I at whom I directed my anger.

2.  I wounded myself with my anger.

3.  I taught my children that tantrumming is a valid relationship skill because I was doing it myself.

4.  I gave my ex-husband more fodder for the already copious e-mails he sent to me accusing me of wrongdoing.

5.  The various therapists working with our family wondered if my ex's accusations were true because they were at least true when I was provoked.

6.   If I allowed myself to get angry and stay angry, I had a harder time stopping my own bad behavior and doing the right thing by my children and by myself. Anger creates a feedback mechanism.  When you get angry, your body releases the hormone adrenaline into your system, which keeps your heart beating at a rapid pace and your blood pressure elevated.  This reaction is called "fight or flight".  The “fight or flight” reaction evolved to keep us strong and alert when our distant ancestors had to fight off lions and bears and wolves or warring tribes of other humans.  It is not an effective way to feel when coping with a badly behaved child or a badly behaved ex-spouse.  You don't want to treat a child the way a distant ancestor might have treated a lion or bear or wolf.  A survival instinct from our distant past when applied to a child in the present day is abuse. So stifle it.  Or be kind to yourself and find a gentler way of expressing the concept.  Tell yourself to find healthier, more effective ways of coping with your feelings.

One of the ways I learned to cope with the "fight or flight" instinct more effectively was to garden when I felt anxious or angry.

When I garden, I accomplish the following:

1.  I calm myself with the physical movement of raking leaves or shoveling dirt.

2.  When I respond calmly to the child who displays anger at me, I demonstrate for her an effective and healthy way of coping with stress.

3.  I stay close to the house so I can monitor the feelings and behaviors of my upset child.  I am able to be present if my child needs me for any reason or if there is an emergency.

4.  I complete badly needed work.  As a single mother, I am always behind on virtually everything.  The grass, even though we don't have much grass anymore, still needs mowing.  The weeds still need pulling.  Our tiny lawn still needs edging.  Oh, and when the blueberries and strawberries are bearing fruit, they always need picking.

5.  The freshly picked berries taste good with whipped cream or in pies or smoothies and provide another resource for calming stress -- comfort food.

6.  I feel better psychologically because my yard is clean and neat.

7.  My children love the fruits and flowers in Mom's yard.

8.  My yard, filled with colorful flowers, abundant fruits and edible herbs, and a small but tidy lawn, becomes a place to come and sit and heal because it is a beautiful place to just be.

9.  Oh, and when I am able to respond to anger with calmness and compassion, I demonstrate to the therapists and the judge working with our family that I am not the problem in the high conflict relationship I have with my ex-husband.

So next time you find yourself coping with emotional upset whether from a badly behaved child or former spouse or friend or sibling or parent or boss or co-worker or whatever the cause of your stress may be, try gardening to help yourself feel better in the moment.

Here are some photos of my garden to inspire you:

Native yellow violet and Labrador Violet

Labrador Violets and Hyacinth

Ornamental Buttercup

Starflower and Grape Hyacinth

Violets and Stonecrop on a boulder wall.

A bowl of berries from my garden.  Just a little washing and whipped cream, and 
I have some comfort food.

Some other ways of calming yourself down in the moment of anger or conflict include: House cleaning, journaling, singing, dancing to music, drawing or painting or sculpting, talking to a trusted friend or family member or two or three, taking long, hot baths with scented epsom salts and candles, and that great standby -- eating chocolate or other comfort foods such as whipped cream and berries.

Can you think of some fun, healthy, and productive ways of calming yourself down?

@ 2015 Virginia Pickles Jones.  Contact me at

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