The real connection between trauma and anxiety

No matter when you experience your trauma, it leaves a trace in the body. You might have experienced trauma as a child or much later in life. Trauma does not have to be full-blown such as experiencing a terrorist attack. Trauma can be found in the much more subtle areas of life. Traumatic events will continue to have a lasting effect until the internal conflict caused has been addressed and resolved. Until such issues are addressed, they will adversely affect mental health. Often this shows up as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress, among many other problems.


How do we know its trauma?

Trauma is a response to a threat. It plays an essential role in survival. The central nervous system detects a danger and calls the body to fight, flight or freeze through its alert system.

During a fight-flight-freeze response, the physiology of the brain kicks in. The reaction begins with the amygdala, the body's smoke detector, sending signals to the hypothalamus, which then alerts the central nervous system process.

A rapid response occurs during the fight response in mammals, including humans. We instantly process. Am I capable of fighting and defeating this threat? If yes, we engage in action empowered by a rush of adrenaline, other body chemicals, and noradrenaline to equip the body, such as cortisol. The body's response increases heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing.

In a flight response, it is believed that the danger cannot be overcome, and the threat must be avoided. A surge of adrenaline provides the body stamina to flee from danger longer than normal circumstances would permit. On average, the fight or flight response can last between 20 minutes and one hour before beginning to reset itself in the body.

The freeze response to immediate danger or threats is referred to as camouflage. As suggested, you can't fight back or run away, so remain frozen in fear. Numbness takes over, and you can't move.

During the fight-flight-freeze response, the sympathetic nervous system provides the body with energy for the task on the other side. The parasympathetic nervous system returns the central nervous system to a normal reset after 20 minutes to one hour.

Humans are far more complex and can freeze in psychological paralysis. Symptoms start after a period of emotional or physical conflict. Symptoms usually affect the central nervous system and can cause physical disability. 

What is dissociation?

Dissociation is psychic distress where access to thoughts, feelings, and judgement in a dissociated state can leave someone feeling that the world is no longer accurate while watching themselves from an out-of-body experience detached from themselves. Others feel like they are mind wandering. This can be caused by anything that arises out of a traumatic past and be something seen, heard, smelt, or touched. Many different moments can cause triggers because the present moment feels too overwhelming. They include memory loss (amnesia), even of people and events.

Dissociation can become an area for becoming stuck because we are in danger of becoming stuck at that moment long after the trauma has passed when the frozen state is not exited.

Being stuck in a threat response is overwhelming. The body is designed to deal with the threat response temporally. It is one thing to take the treat response activation when required knowing it will pass. But to live constantly with active stress chemicals in the body over a long period will wear anyone down.

Relational depth during counselling sessions improves therapeutic outcomes. Those connections may be more important than ever during social disconnection, fragmentation, and fear.

How trauma and anxiety connect

Trauma can connect and cause anxiety after a single event or build up over time in the body. Sending a message that life is in danger, trauma can persist from childhood into adulthood until being addressed. As developing children, it is essential to feel secure. The process of self-regulating the body depends on favourable conditions from birth.

Even the anticipation of trauma can cause distress. The connection between trauma and anxiety comes when we consider the definition of anxiety:

Anxiety is characterised by tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.

Anxiety disorders usually involve recurrence. Intrusive thoughts or other concerns and avoidance of situations can develop. You could experience physical symptoms such as dizziness, rapid heartbeat, and sweating may occur. Anxiety is not fear but is often used interchangeably. Anxiety is a future-oriented, long-acting response broadly focused on a diffuse threat. In contrast, fear is an appropriate, present-oriented, short-lived response to an identifiable and specific threat.

Triggers can be subtle, manifesting in any resemblance to the event through the senses - sight, sound, smell, taste or touch. The most significant setback is never being sure when a trigger will appear. Therefore, we need to have a process in place of feeling the way to safety. Social withdrawal and emotional numbness can be presenting issues. 

Trauma-induced anxiety and healing

Coming to terms with trauma-induced anxiety requires discovering a lasting way of feeling in the mind and returning to a place we feel safe. Talking therapies can help by patiently working on and seeking to resolve internal conflict. Anxiety can never be about thinking "I should do what I will do". It is, however, about creating a place of safe return when you feel under attack.

This can be achieved by better understanding what is happening in your body and how to respond appropriately once we know how to slow the body down and breathe slowly, forging a connection between the mind and body that guides us back into the present moment.

In a world that feels as if it's racing on with climate change and other matters of oblivion, we might just want to ground ourselves. We can learn to use many self-help tools for coping and self-care. A good way of temporarily letting go of anxiety is to sit comfortably in a room in the moment with your hands on your lap and breathe slowly. Take deep breaths, focus on your breath and how this feels as it enters and leaves your body. Noticing your mood and emotions allows you to let go of anxiety and relax.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Written by David Pender, MBACP, Integrative Psychotherapy | Specialising in Anxiety
London E1 & E14

David Pender is a mental health advocate/ writer and qualified integrative counsellor registered as a member with the BACP. David has extensive knowledge of anxiety, depression, and trauma. As a coach, David has a range of tools to keep you engaged with promoting your best life. Unsure try a free discovery call from this site.

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