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How to Manage Anxiety After Trauma

Trauma involves a threat to our safety or wellbeing. When we experience a traumatic event or multiple events, our bodies and minds can go through changes in the way we experience our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations that result in feeling anxiety.

Why Does Trauma Cause Anxiety?

Not everyone experiences the effects of trauma in the same ways, but in general, trauma can cause:

Impacts on the brain

Increased activation in the amygdala (the part of the brain that regulates emotions) and hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning). How does this result in anxiety? Individuals may experience hypersensitivity to potential threats and have difficulty processing and moving past the memory of the trauma. Trauma can also disrupt the balance of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine, which can cause increased anxiety.

Impacts on the body

Trauma can disrupt the body’s stress response system, leading to chronic activation of the “fight-or-flight” response. This prolonged state of arousal can contribute to the development of anxiety disorders.

Impacts on perception of safety

Trauma often shatters one’s sense of safety and security. Individuals who have experienced trauma may perceive the world as a more dangerous place, leading to hypervigilance and anxiety in various situations.

Intrusive Memories and Flashbacks

Trauma can result in intrusive memories, nightmares, and flashbacks, where individuals may vividly re-experience aspects of the traumatic event. These symptoms can contribute to heightened anxiety and a constant state of alertness.

Cognitive Distortions

Trauma can influence one’s thought patterns, leading to negative and distorted beliefs about oneself, others, and the world. These cognitive distortions can contribute to the development and maintenance of anxiety.

Impaired Coping Mechanisms

Individuals who have experienced trauma may have difficulty developing effective coping mechanisms. This can result in maladaptive strategies, such as avoidance or substance use, which may exacerbate anxiety.

Impact on Relationships

Trauma can affect interpersonal relationships, leading to difficulties in forming and maintaining connections. Social support is crucial for mental well-being, and disruptions in relationships can contribute to anxiety.

Managing Anxiety After Trauma

Effectively dealing with anxiety may look different for everyone, however, it is helpful to use a variety of tools and resources that will help you feel more empowered, calm, and confident.

Here are some ways to start managing anxiety:

Regulate your nervous system

Regulating the nervous system involves practices and techniques that help maintain a balance between the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) branches.

  • Deep Breathing Exercises: Practice diaphragmatic breathing or deep belly breathing. Inhale slowly through your nose, expanding your diaphragm, and exhale slowly through your mouth. This helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • Mindfulness Meditation: Engage in mindfulness meditation to bring your attention to the present moment. Mindfulness practices can help reduce stress and regulate the nervous system.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR): Tense and then gradually release different muscle groups throughout your body. This helps release physical tension and promotes relaxation.
  • Guided Imagery: Use guided imagery or visualization techniques to create calming mental images. This can help shift your focus away from stressors and activate the relaxation response.
  • Grounding Techniques: Practice grounding exercises, such as feeling the sensation of your feet on the ground or focusing on the physical sensations in your body. Grounding helps connect you to the present moment.

Understand Your Anxiety

Educating yourself about anxiety, its symptoms, and its triggers can empower you to manage it more effectively.

  • Keep track of your triggers: triggers can be situations, places or people that cause a sense of strong overwhelm or intense emotion, thought, or physical response. These triggers may include situations that remind you (even on subconscious level) of past associations. An example may be hearing someone’s tone of voice that reminds you of a past argument, seeing a particular place that is associated with a past event, or smelling a scent that evokes a negative memory of a person or situation.
  • Make the connection between your identified triggers and the emotions, thoughts, physical sensations, and behaviours that often automatically follow. For example, do you feel angry, anxious, fearful, sad, or helpless following certain triggers? How do you react in these situations? Perhaps you notice avoiding certain situations or people, changing your routine, or withdrawing from those around you.
  • Communicate: understanding and managing triggers is important for effective communication, both in personal relationships and professional settings. Being aware of your triggers and expressing them to others can help prevent misunderstandings and conflicts.

Aim for a healthy lifestyle

Establish a Routine:

  • Create a daily routine that includes regular sleep patterns. Consistent sleep and wake times contribute to overall nervous system regulation and increase your sense of calm throughout the day.

Social Connection:

  • Foster social connections and spend time with supportive friends or family. Positive social interactions can have a calming effect on the nervous system.

Hydration and Nutrition:

  • Ensure you are well-hydrated and maintain a balanced diet. Dehydration and nutritional imbalances can impact the nervous system.

Regular Exercise:

  • Engage in regular physical activity. Exercise helps release endorphins, which can improve mood and contribute to a more balanced nervous system.

Reaching out for help

Understanding and effectively coping with anxiety after trauma takes some experimentation of finding the right combination of activities that feel good for each individual person.

Besides these activities and tools that can be used by people on their own, sometimes it is both important and necessary to reach out for professional help. A trauma-informed therapist understands the effects of trauma and can work with you to develop a personalized plan to help you recover, heal, and live with more calm and ease.

At Open Door Therapist, our therapists use evidence-based approaches that are trauma-focused, such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), parts work (ex. Internal Family Systems), CPT (Cognitive Processing Therapy), DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy), EFT (Emotion Focused Therapy), mindfulness-based approaches, somatic-based approaches, and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) to help individuals process their traumas, reduce symptoms of anxiety, and take control of their life.

Getting started is easy and our door is open when you are ready to take the first step toward healing.

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