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Anger and Polyvagal Theory: How you are stuck in a fight state

Updated: May 9, 2023

I want to reframe what anger is for you. Yes, it's an emotion. And yes, it's an emotion that indicates other things going on emotionally, like hurt, embarrassment, or even sadness.

You might feel angry often. Maybe more often than not. I want to share with you why that is and what you can do about it.

The answer to this lies in understanding the connection between anger and the Polyvagal Theory.



Anger and Polyvagal Theory? Huh?

Yep, this is the place to start. I'll keep it brief here, but I have lots of free resources for you to go even deeper, like my Polyvagal Intro page on my website here.

What is the Polyvagal Theory?

In essence, The Polyvagal Theory hypothesizes that the autonomic nervous system has three distinct biological states. Each serves the overall function of ensuring survival of the organism (humans for our purpose). But each biological state provides its own mechanism to ensure survival:

  • social engagement and optimal functioning in a safety state

  • mobilization in a flight/fight state

  • immobilization in a shutdown or freeze state.

The Polyvagal Fight State

Fight is in the mobilization state, along with flight. They both evolved within us to mobilize to safety. With flight, that means running and escaping. With fight, that means getting closer to the danger in order to get it to back off, then using flight to escape.


angry-man-screaming-art

A stuck Polyvagal fight state

2 paths to getting stuck

Path 1 is from an acute life-threat reaction.

While the fight state is a natural response to danger, us human beings have a tendency to get stuck in it due to traumatic events. This could be a trauma where the individual went to their fight state, but were also immobilized in it. This would be a shock trauma.

Path 2 is a chronic disruption of connectedness

Or it could also be from a chronic disruption of connectedness, where the impulse to connect was repeatedly severed and left the person in a fight state, maybe because they needed to exist in fight to get their needs met.

Why we have a Polyvagal Fight State

Fight evolved within us to be used in short bursts of movement, like pushing, lifting, throwing or hitting, for example. But when someone is stuck in the fight state, the experience of fight changes. This person may feel:

  • irritability

  • anger

  • aggression.

They will have thoughts of blame; it'll always be someone else's fault, and they won't be able to pause, reflect and take responsibility. For this person, the stuck fight state is flavoring their thoughts, emotions, and interactions.

Their angry fight state becomes their default view and filter of reality.

When someone is stuck in a fight-flavored freeze state, they will experience rage. This is not the same as anger from the fight state alone. Rage occurs when the fight state has been immobilized along with shutdown.



Coming out of Polyvagal fight

It's generally possible to come out of a stuck fight state. This requires a couple of essential things:

  1. Access and build the strength of your safety state. If you have no reference point for safety, then you will need to learn to feel it and practice being in that state. With repeated practice, this increases your distress tolerance and opens up the possibility of the second step. (Safety is different than "coping", btw. More on that in the video below.)

  2. Actually allow yourself to experience the stuck fight state. After you develop distress tolerance, like through my Building Safety Anchors course, you can then bring your attention to the actual stuck fight state in your body. You could mindfully experience and discharge, allowing autonomic shifts to happen. Eventually, you would be able to shift out of fight, then into flight and then into your safety state. It's not an easy process, but it's generally possible. Unstucking Defensive States teaches you all about getting relief from your stuck trauma.


You're normal

You might exist in a stuck fight state. And you might think something is wrong with you or you're defective. The reality is that you may have been through something that left you in a stuck fight state. You may have had a very normal reaction to event(s) that were abnormal.

Generally, things can get better and you can live a life without chronic anger and irritability. Having a new understanding of your traumatized state can be a great starting point. I have lots more information on trauma and the Polyvagal Theory in the Members Center and even a Fight State Learning Hub, where all of my content on the fight state is collected for you to easily access.

 

Q&A

Question: What is the Polyvagal Theory?

Answer: The Polyvagal Theory is a theory of how the autonomic nervous system works. It suggests that there are three different states: safety, mobilization, and immobilization. When you're in a safety state, you're able to relax and connect with others or yourself. When you're in a mobilized state, you're prepared to take action, like running or fighting. And when you're in an immobilized state, you're shut down and unable to respond, possibly even dissociative.


Question: What are some symptoms of being stuck in a fight state?

Answer: Some of the symptoms of being stuck in a fight state include:

  • Irritability

  • Anger

  • Aggression

  • Thoughts of blame

  • Difficulty pausing, reflecting, and taking responsibility


Question: What can I do to come out of a stuck fight state?

Answer: There are a few things you can do to come out of a stuck fight state:

  • Access your safety state. This means finding a place where you feel safe and secure. It could be your bedroom, a park, or even your car. Once you're in a safe place, take some deep breaths and focus on your breath. This will help to calm your body and mind. You could even use your imagination - ask yourself "Where would I go to feel safe"? This can also trigger safety in your body. You could also find safety through people, like loved ones, coworkers or a professional relationship like therapy.

  • Allow yourself to experience the anger. Don't try to suppress it or pretend it's not there. Instead, sit with the anger and let it flow through you. This can be difficult, but it's important to allow yourself to feel your emotions as you are ready to and as your safety state is developed.

 

Author Bio:

Justin Sunseri is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Coach specializing in trauma relief. He is the host of the Stuck Not Broken podcast, and author of the book Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. He specializes in treating trauma and helps individuals get "unstuck" from their defensive states.

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