What is anxiety? Where does it come from? Many of my clients come to me with symptoms of anxiety, but they have no context in which to understand their experiences and sensations.
On one hand, there is the type of anxiety that is brought on by situational events, ‘Fomo’ (fear of missing out), or real nameable fears/phobias. Anxiety can also be aggravated by, or a result of foods we eat, or lack of nutrients. Lacking a creative outlet can also be a contributing factor to anxiety (and depression).
On the other hand, there is the chronic anxiety whose root is unhealed trauma.
The most frequent kind of anxiety I see in my clients is the result of unhealed trauma and grief – especially early developmental trauma, prenatal or birth trauma, abuse, neglect, abandonment, old surgeries, accidents…. the examples are endless. This anxiety is a sensation that we can’t get rid of except by healing it. If left unhealed for too long, it turns into depression.
The kind of anxiety I’m writing about here is a biological sensation that can grip you out of nowhere, making your heart feel likes it’s going to pound out of your chest, your hands sweat and your stomach heave.
It can also present as a kind of all pervasive sense of dread that has no logical explanation and follows you through the day, either steady, or ebbing and flowing depending on how distracted you are, but always lurking in the background. Daily activity is undermined by consistent feelings of being ‘keyed up’ or ‘on edge’, irritability, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, sleep disturbances and fatigue. You can become stuck in a constant state of nervous system arousal and hyper-vigilance. These are all signs of your body’s stuck fear reaction, or stored survival stress, that’s knocking on your door for release.
The Roots of Chronic Anxiety Often Lie in Childhood
Babies and toddlers have no ability to calm themselves. They are entirely dependant on caregivers to sooth them through holding, rocking, and making soothing sounds. A loving caregiver can hold a child, and simply by virtue of their own calm state, will bring the infant’s nervous system into harmony and coherence (called co-regulation). Young children’s nervous systems learn what it is to self-regulate from these experiences.
When children grow up with scary, threatening events and situations and are never taught how, or helped to calm their nervous system (self-regulate in psychological terms), their reactions to traumatic experiences get stored in their body, and add up over years. All this stuck fight or flight energy is trying to get up and out, but they don’t have the awareness of how to let that happen. They grow up at the mercy of a nervous system badly out of coherence and constantly in high alert.
When caregivers have a nervous system that is out of whack, they can’t handle the emotional upset of their own children. They react by punishing or ignoring their children’s emotional distress, and end up passing the torch of anxiety onto their children.
To be clear, I am not placing blame on parents and caregivers. I am highlighting a learned pattern of behaviour. If you are recognizing any of this, my main message to you is that there is a way to break this pattern!
Sadly, our society in general doesn’t teach us how to self-regulate. The idea that it’s not socially acceptable to express emotions is still well entrenched, especially for males. So we end up suppressing them.
Self-regulation, writes Ross Buck, “involves in part the attainment of emotional competence, which is defined as the ability to deal in an appropriate and satisfactory way with one’s own feelings and desires.” Emotional competence presupposes capacities often lacking in our society, where “cool” — the absence of emotion — is the prevailing ethic, where “don’t be so emotional” and “don’t be so sensitive” are what children often hear, and where rationality is generally considered to be the preferred antithesis of emotionality. The idealized cultural symbol of rationality is Mr. Spock, the emotionally crippled Vulcan character on Star Trek.”
Living With a Dysregulated Nervous System
Eventually, some of us learn to survive with all this trapped energy in our bodies by shutting down and living in a state of freeze – a sort of emotional and physical numbness, which means we can move through life without going insane from all the stored and unprocessed survival stress.
If this is your current state of being, my guess is that when you slow down – when you try to fall asleep, or just begin to relax into a good book, anxiety suddenly pops up out from under the blanket of numbness and disturbs your ability to relax or sleep. Panic attacks coming out of nowhere and heart palpitations are signs of this trapped survival stress brewing under the surface.
These are all normal experiences when you are living with unhealed trauma. You aren’t crazy!
Over time, living in a constant state of dysregulation, our bodies begin to fall apart, and we can end up with digestive disorders, or chronic diseases like fibromyalgia, diabetes, and cancer.
Besides causing uncomfortable and worrisome physical symptoms, unhealed trauma often leads to an inability to trust. There is a separation between head and heart. Inside you feel anxiety and adrenaline because, although the mind says logically “all is safe”, your body is screaming “danger”! It’s kind of like you’ve got an angry tiger locked in a cage, pacing, tense, ready to attack or run. Which will you trust? Your head or your heart? You lose the ability to truly feel into the world around you and get accurate messages from your environment. Trust in self and others is eroded when you live in such a divided state.
Changing the Pattern of Chronic Anxiety
This kind of anxiety will not heal given time alone. It has to be allowed to come up and out. That means allowing the feelings and sensations to complete their wave and dissipate. A dysregulated nervous system also needs to be retrained to make ‘calm’ it’s new ‘normal’. This can be done in manageable chunks, in a contained, safe and therapeutic environment, and with the aid of easy-to-use tools that can be incorporated into daily life.
Therapeutic tools like guided imagery, HearthMath, the Emotional Freedom Technique and Bach Flower Remedies can all aid the process of releasing stored survival stress and retraining the nervous system.
It is possible to heal the roots of anxiety that arise from unhealed trauma. It is a great joy to watch as people learn to harness their innate self-healing capacity, and come through the other side, with greater calm, clarity and peace than they have known for a very long time. You too can create a life beyond anxiety!
“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. When you stumble, there lies your treasure.” – Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey