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Anxiety Part 2: Trauma and Its Effect On Anxiety

Updated: Jun 23, 2023

We covered this topic in an episode of our Podcast, Talk Therapy To Me. If you prefer to listen rather than read, you can do that here:

Today, I want to talk about the relationship between trauma and anxiety. You may be thinking - wow okay - so we’re coming right out the gate with this one, Caitlin. And yeah - I’ll give you that - and I'm also encouraging you to think that about something that has negatively impacted you, resulting in potentially harmful or isolating behaviors.

And that’s on trauma. Let’s break that down a bit more.

What is trauma?

Many people will automatically go to the worst possible thing and define that as trauma. However, you should know that there are different levels. We all respond to things differently, and something that negatively impacted us may have had a different effect on someone else.

Trauma is an event or experience that can look like: unpleasant interactions with someone, witnessing a traumatic event or experience, or even repeated or extreme exposure to the experience or event itself.

It’s important to note that, again, - everyone’s trauma and reaction are different - so don’t discount your experience in a given situation. If you were negatively impacted by it, you don’t need to prove to someone how traumatic it was for you. Full stop.

Sure, there can be different levels, as I mentioned before. If it helps you, it’s okay to think about stress and trauma in lowercase s and t versus capitalized s and t. However, I don’t want you to compare your stress and trauma to someone else’s. That’s not going to help you offer yourself grace and compassion. If you don’t hear anything else I say, hear that. It’s important to give yourself grace in order to heal.

How does trauma affect you?

When the brain encounters stress and/or trauma, it is programmed to send out signals to help the body protect itself. This is an adaptive response in moments of serious, actual danger. When a person encounters something traumatic, the body initiates a “fight or flight” response mediated by two important substances: a hormone called cortisol and a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine.

Among its other functions, cortisol mobilizes glucose (sugar) for the body to use as fuel, which is helpful if someone is getting ready to fight or run away. Norepinephrine has effects on the brain that promote alertness and vigilance. A heightened physiological (body-based) response to stress can develop with subsequent stressors in a traumatized individual, especially if the trauma happened at a young age.

The effects of trauma over time.

Individuals can go on to develop heightened stress responses to environmental cues that are in fact not dangerous at all. These can also be defined as triggers (which can look different for everyone). This is also where it becomes problematic and distressing.

Triggers can look like being around the person whom you endured unpleasant experiences with, continuing to think about and relive the traumatic experience (so you are, in all intents and purposes, re-traumatizing yourself by going back over and over the event), and even certain smells, sounds, or environments can trigger the stress response.

When exposed to acute danger, including trauma, a fear or stress response in the brain/body initiates the “fight or flight” mode, preparing the person to protect themselves and increase their chance of survival. The areas of the brain that are most involved during and after a traumatic experience include the amygdala (fear center), hippocampus (memory center), and prefrontal cortex (executive function and cognitive control center).

The Window of Tolerance

To give this a more well-rounded look, let’s talk about the Window of Tolerance. It is a term used to describe the zone of arousal - either hypo or hyper - in which a person is able to function most effectively. When people are within this zone - the window of tolerance itself - they are typically able to receive, process, and integrate information and otherwise respond to the demands of everyday life without much difficulty.

When a person is within their window of tolerance, it is generally the case that the brain is functioning well and can effectively process stimuli. That person is likely to be able to reflect, think rationally, and make decisions calmly without feeling either overwhelmed or withdrawn. During times of extreme stress, people often experience periods of either hyper- or hypo-arousal.

  • Hyper-arousal, otherwise known as the fight/flight response, is often characterized by hyper-vigilance, feelings of anxiety and/or panic, and racing thoughts.

  • Hypo-arousal, or the freeze response, may cause feelings of emotional numbness, emptiness, or paralysis.

Individuals who have experienced trauma may experience anxiety in a variety of forms from an increase in generalized worries to panic attacks. Individuals may also avoid social situations that may be more related to trauma symptoms than a fear of embarrassment.

Anxiety and avoidance are connected in individuals with PTSD. One of the pillars of treatment is to break the cycle of avoidance. Avoidance is naturally reinforcing because individuals who avoid anxiety-provoking situations or thoughts experience a decrease in anxiety. This cycle of avoidance can become particularly impairing if left untreated.

Each individual’s window of tolerance is different. Those who have a narrow window of tolerance may often feel as if their emotions are intense and difficult to manage. Others with a wider window of tolerance may be able to handle intense emotions or situations without feeling like their ability to function has been significantly impacted.

The window of tolerance can also be affected by the environment. People are more likely to remain within the window when they feel safe and supported.

How can your return to your Window of Tolerance?

It is possible for individuals who have become dysregulated to use techniques to return to their window of tolerance. Grounding and mindfulness skills, techniques considered beneficial by many mental health experts, can often help people remain in the present moment.

That’s another thing to consider about trauma - where is it taking you? Often it's back to that place where you experienced or witnessed the traumatic event.

Mindfulness and grounding exercises will help bring you back to what is happening in the moment. For example, by focusing on the physical sensations currently being experienced people are often able to remain in the present, while calming and soothing themselves enough to effectively manage extreme arousal. These techniques, and others, can be learned in therapy.

Many individuals are able to widen their window of tolerance and, by doing so, increase their sense of calm and deal with stress in more adaptive ways. Therapy provides a safe space for people to process painful memories and emotions, and can be a helpful step for many. With the help of a mental health professional, individuals are often able to make contact with their emotions without becoming so dysregulated that they cannot integrate them.

For specific mindfulness walkthroughs, check out my guided lake or tea meditation. Also, check out our youtube channel “Mindsight Behavioral Group” for videos from Shayla involving some routines and exercises you can practice on your own. Try them out and I’ll talk to you next time about some famous characters that have anxiety in ways that we can connect with.

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