The Calming Room

Trauma and Anxiety: Where is the connection?

About 60% of men and 50% percent of women have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives.  Of those, 7-8% will go on to be diagnosed with PTSD.   Thus it is clear that the experience of trauma does not necessarily mean one will develop PTSD but can trauma show up in other ways?

Anxiety is a hallmark trauma response.  

The DSM V lists it as hypervigilance which can include: difficulty concentrating; feeling constantly “on guard” or like danger is lurking around every corner; heightened startle response; impulsive or self-destructive behavior; irritability or aggressive behavior and/or problems sleeping. As you can see anxiety comes in many forms and many of us will not realize the impact of our anxiety until it begins to interfere with the way we experience our lives. 

It can cause problems in relationships with ourselves and others. We may have a hard time trusting others, be described as mean or angry or have difficulty regulating our emotions and responses in threatening situations.  We may also struggle with trusting ourselves and doubting our perceptions or judgement.  It can prevent us from fully enjoying life including visiting new or previously familiar places or trying new adventures or experiences for fear of danger.  

How does Anxiety work?

Anxiety can be helpful and it can be a hindrance. It’s helpful when it keeps us alert for work, driving or in dangerous situations but it can become a hindrance when it gets in the way of us living our normal lives. 

Our brain’s job, among many things, is to keep us safe.  It’s constantly scanning to detect issues that may threaten our safety and security.  When we experience danger, our brain encodes the characteristics of that event so that when or if we encounter something similar it can protect us.  It will send a message to other parts of the brain and body to fight, flight or freeze in response to the perceived threat.  Pretty helpful right? The trouble is that once that threat has been encoded, the brain will be cued to respond to all things that are similar to that first traumatic event. That’s when anxiety can become a hindrance.  Here’s an example:

Let’s say we have a car accident on a rainy night.  Soon after the accident, we notice when faced with the potential for driving in the rain, we experience physiological responses that include: increased heart rate, sweaty palms, shaking, jitteriness, nausea and/or shallow breathing. Our brain has connected rain with danger.  Let’s say a loved one has a pretty important meeting on a rainy night and asks us to drive them.  We may respond in a multitude of ways:

Fight or Flight: We may become irritable and start an argument with our loved one. We don’t want to let them down but we also feel powerless, threatened.  Our heart rates may quicken, hands or underarms may dampen with sweat.  Our senses may become narrowed.

Freeze: We may have a panic attack when the image of driving in the rain crosses our minds or we may have no response at all.  Our brains may determine that it’s better for us to be emotionally disconnected from the ask.  We may even change the subject or appear as if we’ve not heard the question. 

These are not the only responses, just some,  and not everyone will have the same reactions.  Some people will outright avoid driving in the rain while others may take small steps to regain their confidence to drive in the rain. Still, others may find themselves feeling trapped with their feelings and thoughts about driving in the rain and find that each time they plan to drive on a rainy day, they back out producing a feeling of relief, a reinforcement of the anxiety.   We are all equipped with different experiences and resources so what affects one person may have little or no bearing another.

How can therapy help?

Instead of our anxiety controlling us, therapy helps us to learn how to manage our anxiety.  Therapy can help us better understand the ways our responses to anxiety interfere with living a fulfilling life, It can help us develop new ways to cope with and better manage our anxiety symptoms with mindfulness, guided meditation, grounding and breathing strategies to name a few.  Therapy can help us teach our brains that every situation similar to the initial trauma is not a repeated trauma.  It can also help us develop openness to the inevitable experiences of discomfort and the flexibility to tolerate them.

There are a variety of therapies that can help you manage your anxiety.  Our therapists are skilled in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,  Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Strategies, Brainspotting and EMDR.  

It is our sincere belief that the most important component of therapy is relationship and so we first spend time getting to know you and your experience and then collaboratively develop a plan for treatment.  We are committed to providing quality care and stay up to date on the latest therapeutic interventions and techniques.