Tuesday, April 21, 2015

How I Harmed Myself With My Anger and 8 Ways Housework 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 I struggle with is anger.  One coping skill I am learning to use to calm my anger is housework.  Yes, you read that correctly, housework.  A clean house lifts up my mood and calms my anxiety two ways.  First, as a single mother, I always have work to do.  When I get work done, my stress levels decrease, but physical activity of housework -- sweeping, wiping, and vacuuming -- also lowers my stress.  Lower stress levels decrease my susceptibility to 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 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 in the forms of raised voices or criticism 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 expresses visible anger 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 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 felt especially 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 coping mechanisms.  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 and 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 such as the copious e-mails he sent me requesting 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 in the house 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 we had to fight off lions and bears and wolves or warring tribes of other humans the way our distant ancestors once were forced to do.  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 more effectively with the "fight or flight" reaction was to do housework.

When I clean my house I accomplish the following:

1.  I calm myself with the physical movement of sweeping or vacuuming or swatting at the spiders in the corners of the ceilings -- effective uses of the physical anxiety reaction caused by adrenaline release.

2.  By responding calmly to the child who displays anger at me,  I demonstrate for him an effective and healthy way to cope with stress.

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

4.  I complete some badly needed work.  As a single mother, I am always behind on virtually everything.  I am still training my children to clean -- probably the reasons for their tantrums in the first place.  Cleaning is definitely a two or three for one accomplishment.

5.  I feel better psychologically in a clean environment.

6.  I feel better physically in a clean environment.  A clean house is less likely to have mold and dust and things that make you sick or have allergic reactions.

7.  My children like the cleanliness of Mom's house.

8.  Oh, and when I am able to respond to anger with calmness and compassion, I demonstrate to therapists working with our family that I am not the problem in my high conflict relationship 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 whatever the cause of your stress may be, try cleaning your house to help yourself feel better in the moment.

Some other ways of calming yourself down in the moment of anger or conflict include: Gardening, journaling, singing or singing and dancing to the 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 by candle light, and that great standby -- eating chocolate.

Can you think of positive and healthy things you can do to help yourself calm down when you are angry?

@ 2015 Virginia Pickles Jones.  You may contact Virginia at compassion500@gmail.com.

Check out my You Tube Channel at Healing is a Sacred Journey/StopAbuseHealWounds

Check out my Facebook at Compassionate Gathering.

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