The funny thing about both anxiety and C-PTSD is that it’s often difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. I’ve spoken a lot in previous articles about how I sometimes get very bad anxiety attacks, how I still have lingering problems with authority figures, and how living with my abusive dad turned me into a perfectionist in all the worst possible ways. What I don’t believe I’ve spoken about explicitly is the difference between general anxiety and C-PTSD symptoms that mirror those of general anxiety.
First: anxiety can be caused by abuse and trauma, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s some people in my life who see therapists, take medication, and manage symptoms of anxiety without having undergone any sort of ongoing abuse or intense trauma.
They had “normal” childhoods and relatively healthy relationships with their parents, teachers and peers growing up, and didn’t suffer any sudden, extreme traumatic events during childhood. (The definition of a sudden, extreme traumatic event is very subjective, but for the purposes of this article I’m going to limit the concept to: the death or loss of a close family member or friend, a physical attack by another person or an animal, a car or train accident that caused lasting injury, or a sexual assault.)
For them, anxiety can take many forms: obsessing over the ways situations can go wrong or be dangerous, procrastination as a result of executive dysfunction, perpetual feelings of fear with no obvious source, being afraid to make phone calls to the point of panicking, etc. This is just part of their brain chemistry, and each manages their anxiety in a way that’s uniquely right for them.
I can relate to a lot of these symptoms, but it’s also different for me because I know that many of the symptoms I experience are related to trauma from my childhood.
I obsess sometimes over the ways situations can go wrong because there was a long period in my life during which I was intensely punished every time a situation went wrong, whether or not I really had control over that situation.
If I was in charge of something, like a school project or a chore that had to be done, and it wasn’t done to my dad’s liking, I either got screamed at, lectured, or both. My brain has been wired by 19 years of experience to expect anger and derision as a result of failure.
I sometimes dread interactions with authority figures because my brain has been wired to expect from them ignorance instead of understanding, coldness instead of sympathy, anger instead of patience. And while I’m much more comfortable with conflict overall, my heart still races sometimes when I’m expecting a response after a “risky” text or email or when I’m about to raise an issue with someone face to face.
All of these are trauma responses. Although these behaviors and feelings are all common to both anxiety and C-PTSD, I experience them specifically because by brain was trained over a long period of time to expect trauma from certain situations.
To make things more complicated: I also suffer from anxiety. Sometimes I will have long stretches of time where I feel afraid (to greater or lesser extents) with no discernible reason. Sometimes my heart will pound in situations completely unrelated to the ones I described above regarding conflict or project management.
On rare occasions, I will wake up in the middle of the night with a full-on panic attack. Sometimes it will involve a situation of conflict, or a person I’m not on good terms with. Other times it won’t, and I’ll have no idea why my mind and body are reacting in such a manner while at the same time my thoughts spiral out of control.
While the symptoms for both anxiety and C-PTSD can be intrusive and at time debilitated, they can be managed. My therapist recently taught me about the benefits of meditation for reducing anxiety. In my own case, she taught me the following process:
- Physically stabilize myself with both feet on the ground – preferably while sitting
- Breathe with muscle control from only my stomach (to maximize the chest and shoulders opening during deep breathing)
- Take long, concentrated breaths (4 seconds in, 7 seconds held, 8 seconds out)
- Block out all thoughts, and concentrate only on the image of a ball of light centered above and between my eyes.
- Continue this process and focus the image I’ve chosen (whether it’s a ball of light or something else) for as long as it takes to become calm.
I’ve started using this process a lot recently. It reduces my heart rate, provides feelings of peace, and also allows me to regain control in terms of organizing my thoughts and concentrating on one thing at a time.
Anxiety, whatever the cause, thrives on chaos. It feeds on the stress of multiple things happening at once, the pressure of whether or not to expect pain or conflict or trauma, and the uncertainty of the future. In my own experience, my anxiety is managed best when I ground myself, focus on the concrete facts I have, remind myself to only deal with one thing at a time, and remember that it’s alright to not always have complete control.
Thanks for reading!
Here’s more C-PTSD Help.