Is Anxiety Rooted in Trauma?

People are talking about anxiety right and left these days. It makes sense – so much is happening, and we don’t know exactly how to handle all the pressures and difficult circumstances coming our way. The word “anxiety” has become something of a buzzword in 2020. What do we mean when we use that word? Is anxiety caused strictly by stressful external circumstances? Why do some people seem so even-keeled, while others get bent out of shape over the simplest things?

The answer to whether anxiety is rooted in trauma is not a simple one. I would never want to diagnose anyone over a blog post, but I would like to offer some simple questions and markers that may help you determine what kind of anxiety is plaguing you. At its root, anxiety is defined as a sense of dread that can range from mild to debilitating. But there are different reasons you could be experiencing this kind of dread. Some people dread the future because something horrible has happened in their past, and they’re doing everything they can to keep bad things from happening again. If this is true for you, your anxiety may be rooted in traumatization.

Many people don’t connect their anxiety to traumatic incidents in their past because they’ve never been challenged to do so. Especially in Christian circles, anxiety is seen as something to kill, something to overcome. So we don’t necessarily take the time to be curious enough about our anxious feelings to ask questions about them. But if you’re wondering whether some of your anxiety comes from a wound in your past that hasn’t healed, here are some questions you can ask yourself. I recommend you consider these questions, but then make sure to talk them through with a trusted and wise friend who can help you discern whether there are next steps to take in the process of healing and freedom:

  1. What kinds of people, places or situations do I want to avoid?

    When I experience a situation that leads me toward feelings of anxiety, it’s natural that I may want to avoid that type of situation in the future. For example, if I am forced to make a presentation in class and I get so anxious that I have heart palpitations and shortness of breath, I probably won’t volunteer to be a presenter at a conference. It’s normal (though sometimes not best) to want to avoid what brings anxiety. But those whose anxiety includes a history of trauma will avoid situations, people or places because they evoke strong and visceral sensations that can play tricks on their brains. For example, I may feel anxious about dark alleys. If I enter a dark and empty street and suddenly feel a sense of panic in my entire body, as if I’m back in the dark alley in which I was attacked as a teenager, perhaps that particular situation evokes anxiety because the trauma of being attacked has not yet been healed. I know that’s an extreme example, but even fears of situations like being alone in a room or standing in a small space could be rooted in a memory of something traumatic. So the key is to explore whether avoidance may be rooted in a traumatic memory.

  2. What’s my reaction time when I feel anxious?

    When our anxious feelings are triggered by traumatic memory, it can seem as if the stimulus evokes an immediate reaction that doesn’t allow us to engage our logical minds. The fear response is a God-given function of the brain that is meant to help keep us alive in a dangerous and life-threatening situation. It’s possible that your brain carries “procedural memory” of something that was dangerous, which is stored in a different way than most memories. If your brain carries a procedural memory that tells your body to immediately react because a threat is present, you will go into “flight/fight/freeze” response without even realizing why. It will also sometimes seem silly to you, as if you shouldn’t be so keyed-up about a perceived threat, but your reaction is strong and quick. Sometimes this type of reaction happens because your body is being triggered by a stimulus that reminds your brain of a traumatic memory.

  3. What thoughts are connected to the feeling of anxiety when it occurs?

    A lot of people have trouble putting thoughts next to their feelings. When I ask what they’re thinking in connection to an anxious feeling, they don’t know right off the bat. That’s ok. But I encourage you to be curious about your anxious feelings. Ask yourself what you’re thinking. If your thoughts seem to go to extremes, there’s a possibility that anxiety is being provoked by unhealed trauma. For example, people who have been traumatized may have extreme thoughts such as, “No one is trustworthy,” or “Every place is unsafe.” You can have these thoughts without having been traumatized, but these kinds of extreme thoughts can be categorized as “absolutism,” which is a potential marker of traumatization.

  4. What’s happening in my body when I feel anxious?

    When anxiety hits, we often have bodily responses. Our hands sweat, our hearts race, our muscles tense up. These responses are our bodies’ way of alerting us of anxiety, but they’re also designed to help us either fight or flee in a dangerous situation. But when a threat or a perceived threat has ended, our bodies are supposed to return to a state of equilibrium. Both chronically anxious people and people with unhealed trauma have trouble getting back to that state of calm. People who have been traumatized often perpetuate a state of “hyper-vigilance,” both in their minds and in their bodies. It’s as if they’re waiting for some threat to come around every corner. Because they’re constantly on the lookout for danger, their bodies stay keyed up and have trouble becoming calm. Again, chronic anxiety can also include a constant state of bodily tension, but people with unhealed trauma will often share that they cannot sleep or relax.

Again, you cannot diagnose traumatization from any written source. If your answers to these questions lead you to believe you may have unhealed trauma, talk with a trusted friend or counselor. We are NEVER meant to walk through difficult things alone. The most constant factor in a person’s healing is the presence of a safe and compassionate person.

How to spot partner abuse

I was sitting in a coffee shop with a friend, and she was describing her anxiety. She said she felt like she couldn’t get anything right. No matter what she did, it didn’t seem like enough. She wanted to be a responsible person, a person who was loving and compassionate. But she just couldn’t seem to fulfill those expectations.

I told her that I struggle with the same things. I shared that I’m naturally a perfectionist who holds myself to astronomical standards and beats myself up when I don’t get everything right. I said I’m learning that the Lord created me to be finite and dependent on Him. It’s ok not to be perfect.

Then she started to cry. She said she didn’t know how to accept her imperfections. She wanted to be allowed to be human and finite, but she wasn’t sure she could have a more realistic standard. Something in the way she said it made me wonder. So I asked, “Do you hold yourself to an unrealistic standard, or are you trying to be perfect in order to please someone else?”

Her head went down. She stopped looking me in the eye. The silence dragged from seconds to minutes. I knew she wanted to say something, so I just waited. Finally, with eyes still lowered, she said, “I’ve lost track of all the ways I’m failing. And sometimes I don’t even know I’m failing till he gets home. I don’t remember till it’s too late.”

She’s not anxious because she’s a perfectionist. She’s anxious because she hasn’t followed all of his rules perfectly. She’s in an abusive relationship.

Sometimes partner abuse is hard to spot. It can be subtle. It can develop so slowly that it’s imperceptible to the observer. Many women who are struggling with anxiety are actually staggering under the weight of an abusive partner, but they don’t even know to call it that. To them, it’s just how relationships work. And in the Christian world, it can be even more devastating because partner abuse is happening under the definition of wifely submission.

It’s time for the Church to say some really clear things. Submission never means following someone’s rules to avoid punishment. It never means sacrificing the health and safety of yourself or your children in order to appease someone’s preferences. It never means laying yourself on someone else’s altar. This is not submission. It’s abuse.

In whatever ways we have allowed abuse to continue in the name of submission or humility, we need to repent. We need to learn what to look for and how to get help for those who are suffering at the hands of someone else. Abuse is happening right under our noses, to women and men and children. To the elderly and the disabled. We need some education, and we need boldness to advocate.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a great website. That’s where I’ll point you in beginning your education (click HERE). This website defines domestic abuse and gives warning signs to look for. You’ll also find the Power and Control Wheel, a very helpful tool that describes ways in which someone will exert power for selfish gain.

Here’s the Hotline’s list of signs your loved one may be experiencing partner abuse: (https://www.thehotline.org/help/help-for-friends-and-family/)

  • Their partner puts them down in front of other people
  • They are constantly worried about making their partner angry
  • They make excuses for their partner’s behavior
  • Their partner is extremely jealous or possessive
  • They have unexplained marks or injuries
  • They’ve stopped spending time with friends and family
  • They are depressed or anxious, or you notice changes in their personality

Of course, your friend or loved one may not exhibit all these signs, but if you notice even a couple of them, you can ask a few questions to learn more:

  • “I noticed him putting you down, and that bothered me. Does that happen a lot?”
  • “You seem worried about making him mad. Do you feel worried about that often?”
  • “He seems to get jealous easily. Do you see that with him?”
  • “I noticed that bruise. It looks painful. Because I love you, I need to ask – did someone give that to you?”
  • “You seem distant lately, and not because you want to be. I’m wondering if you feel pressured only to be with him, like you’re not allowed to spend time with your friends and family.”
  • “I can tell you’ve been down lately. I want you to know I’m here for you and would love to support you in whatever you’re going through.”

(In these questions, I’m using the female pronoun to describe the abuse victim, but keep in mind that abuse happens to both men and women. No one is exempt from the possibility of being victimized.)

If you ask a few of these questions and sense that the person’s answers may indicate partner abuse, trust your instinct. It’s not your job to investigate. It’s your job to support. You can simply tell your friend that you’re concerned about the relationship, that something doesn’t seem healthy. Ask her if she’s willing to share these concerns with someone more knowledgable, like a professional counselor. Offer to go with her. She may not want to do it, because she feels responsible for protecting her abuser’s reputation. If she doesn’t want to get help, ask if she’d be willing to look at some materials about healthy and unhealthy relationships. You can print some materials from the Hotline website to talk through with her.

I don’t recommend that you go behind your loved one’s back in trying to help her. She is living a life under someone else’s power. You want to communicate the opposite to her. She is her own person. She deserves to make her own decisions. She has dignity and worth. Ask her what she wants to do and give her options, but don’t make decisions for her and don’t pressure her.

If she shares with you that children may be endangered, you should report to CPS. Don’t wait, and don’t wonder whether it is actually happening or just suspected. The safety of children is always imperative, and it’s not up to you to figure out – only to report. To report child abuse in Texas, call 1-800-252-5400, or www.txabusehotline.org. The National Child Abuse Hotline number is 1-800-4-A-Child, or www.childhelp.org.

 

Questions to ask an abuse survivor

I’m encouraged by the number of people who want to be helpful. Even more, I’m grateful for those who are willing to take the risk of leaning into hard conversations, hoping to support someone who’s suffering. I’ve often received questions from people about what types of questions they should ask someone who has survived abuse. I’m learning that many people want to help but hesitate to step into the conversation out of fear that they’ll do or say something wrong.

If you’re someone who wants to support a survivor of abuse, thank you. Being fearful of saying the wrong thing is only natural. Feeling unprepared is common. The worst thing you could do would be to back away and hope someone else steps in. I’m happy to give you some jumping-off points in order to help you ask good questions. But first, allow me to give some words of caution.

When I first started sharing my story with others, I got a variety of responses. I was seventeen when I was sexually assaulted. I told two adults about it. The first one asked me what I was wearing when it happened. The second asked me if I was going to press charges. I have no doubt that both those adults thought they were being helpful. One thought she would shield me from further abuse by instructing me on my clothing choices, and the other thought she would help me get justice. My response? I walked away and never spoke to either of them again about my suffering.

Many people think they’re being helpful by offering advice or trying to “make right” what went wrong. Allow me to let you off the hook. You won’t fix anything. Ever. You can’t make the hurt end by any word you will say. You can’t create peace by bringing the perpetrator to justice. No human word or action fixes the brokenness caused by abuse.

I’ve counseled dozens of abuse survivors. Not one of them “got better” because someone asked the right questions or offered the best advice. We all journey toward healing for our whole lives. You may have the honor of walking alongside one of these beautiful people, and you’ll be better for it. But you won’t ever fix anything.

So my word of caution is this: first, check your “fixer” at the door. Ask yourself why you want to step into the conversation before you step in. The ultimate motive should be love, fueled by compassion and hope. Second, you shouldn’t ask these questions of someone with whom you haven’t already established a strong relationship. Healing happens in the context of safety. If you aren’t sure whether you’re a safe person for her, ask someone else to step in and support her. Third, you’re not an investigator. The point is not that you get all the information. The point is that you empathize with her. This means you may not have all the facts, but hopefully you’ll gain insight into her experience. And finally, you’re (most likely) not a professional counselor. Please don’t try to counsel her – it takes years of study and experience to know how to guide someone toward healing. You are there to listen and support. Leave the counseling to someone who’s trained and ethically bound to do no harm.

(Keep in mind that these questions are intended to be asked of someone who has shared that she was abused in the past. In a future post, I’ll share questions to ask someone who might be experiencing current abuse.)

  1. I can’t imagine what you’ve experienced, but I want to. Will you tell me more about what happened to you? (This is a purposefully open-ended question. She will share with you what she feels comfortable sharing. Don’t push for more.)
  2. What was it like in the days and months following the abuse?
  3. Did you tell anyone directly after it happened? How did they respond?
  4. What are some ways the abuse has affected your life?
  5. When you think about the future, is anything scary to you?
  6. Who has helped you in your healing journey. What has been helpful about their involvement?
  7. What are some unhelpful or hurtful things people have said or done as you’ve sought to heal?
  8. Who is walking alongside you now? Do you need additional support?
  9. Have you been involved in groups or counseling to help you heal? Is that something you want?
  10. How can I continue to support you as you heal?

 

Please share your comments and questions with me! 

How should men care for female survivors of sexual abuse?

“I was bit by a big dog when I was a kid, and now I’m afraid of all big dogs.”

I wasn’t surprised to hear this from my friend. It’s a natural instinct for her to recoil from something that reminds her of a dangerous situation. In fact, it’s a God-given instinct for survival. I don’t fault my friend for the way she feels – it’s just the way she feels. And I’m not defensive that she doesn’t want to be around my black lab, no matter how friendly or lovable. Her experience has changed her perceptions and interactions.

Since the recent news about perpetrators of sexual abuse within Southern Baptist churches, I’ve had several conversations with men about the experience of a female abuse survivor. These men are asking me questions because they know my story. They know I can relate.

I am a survivor of sexual assault. I was seventeen, and I was forced into a sexual encounter by a peer. The pain of that moment still grieves me, but equal to that grief were the horrifying days and months following the abuse, in which well-meaning Christians affirmed the dreaded voice that was haunting my every thought: “It was your fault.”

The damage is great. Vast and far-reaching. Since that season of my life, I have read and studied and met individually and in groups with countless women like me. Our stories are all different, but all with common threads. We all felt overwhelming shame, betrayal and fear. And we all heard the dreaded voice. We couldn’t make it stop. It told us we were to blame.

We were trying to make sense of something senseless, so we believed we caused the trauma. That allowed us to feel a sense of control, to build a system in which we could prevent further trauma if only we could do everything perfectly next time. But let’s be honest – we didn’t know any of that. We were just drowned in shame and fear, and we fought our way to the surface the best way we knew how.

In building this system, the creation of categories became a survival tactic. The location of the abuse was now off-limits. The clothing I wore, the size and shape of my body, the way I interact with the opposite sex…on and on. My list became very long, and it grew each time I had a flashback to the abuse. But at the top of my list was one word. MEN.

In the same way my friend recoils from big dogs because of her interaction with one bad one, I became afraid of men. I began to assume that they all thought of me as a piece of meat, not even good enough to be swallowed but only to be chewed up and spit out. This was not a true statement, of course, but my brain had created a category to keep me safe. Until healing occurred, this category was the only way for me to function.

So what should you do if you’re a man who wants to care for a female sexual abuse survivor? How do you interact with her? What does she need?

Use your ears.

If you are someone she trusts enough to receive her story, that’s a gift. The moment you know what she faced, you have become someone unlike her abuser. You have been trusted with something very vulnerable and tender. So there’s no need to defend your gender. There’s no reason to try to educate her or admonish her. These are moments of ministry – the ministry of listening. Whatever she shares is precious. Take it to heart, and let her know that you are honored to receive her story.

Believe the best of her.

The voice in her head takes a long time to go away. For some, it never goes away. She expects others to perpetuate that voice and tell her she was to blame for the abuse. She’s wondering what you think the moment you hear her story. She doesn’t have a personal vendetta against you because you’re a man. She has very good reason to believe that a man will betray and belittle and dehumanize her, because she’s experienced it firsthand. While you’re not to blame for the abuse, someone in your gender was. That means you can help by being someone who looks her in the face, who smiles kindly, who affirms that what she experienced was a vile and abominable evil.

Push below the anger.

Many men I’ve encountered are able to express their anger and disgust that someone could perpetrate sexual abuse. But I have found few men who are willing to dig below the anger into how they feel. Anger is a secondary emotion – it stems from something else. What do you feel beneath the anger? Is anger a shield that allows you to stand in righteous indignation without actually experiencing empathy?

Empathy comes when you admit that you don’t understand and humbly ask for help. Some think they are empathizing, but they’re actually just sympathizing (i.e., “I understand because I experienced something similar”). You cannot understand what someone has faced, no matter how similar your experiences have been. Empathy means you ask for understanding, desiring to sit in the ashes with someone. It means you want to experience it yourself alongside them. This is so painful to do, and many men refuse.

If you’re interested in experiencing empathy regarding a woman’s experience with sexual abuse, start with this question: What if she were my wife? my daughter? my sister? my best friend? my mother? my girlfriend?

Let that question sink in. All the way down to the core. What if? How angry would you feel? How sad? How terrified? How hopeless?

Now look into that woman’s face. She IS your wife, your daughter, your sister, your best friend, your mother, your girlfriend. She is.

Link arms with her

She may have been walking on the road to healing for a long time, or she may have just begun. Ask her how you can serve her. You are most likely not the person she’ll continue to talk with about her abuse, but she needs someone (or several someones). Find resources in your church and community that specialize in caring for abuse survivors. Help her access those resources, and then commit to walk alongside her as she heals. She needs faithful men in her life, men who combat the lie that all males dehumanize females. And remember that she may share her story with you, but that doesn’t mean you’re automatically and completely safe. She needs other women, primarily, to be her support system. Operate as her advocate and resource-provider, and keep asking her how you can serve her.

I hope this post generates many other posts! Please send me your comments, stories, and questions. 

 

What to Do with Crippling Fear

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I wanted to touch on what happens when a person becomes so crippled by fear that they are unable to function in the ways they once were. This can look several different ways, such as panic attacks, fears of particular situations or objects (we call these phobias), fears that lead to compulsions and obsessive thoughts, general anxiety that keeps a person from being able to fulfill regular responsibilities, and anxiety as a result of trauma that has happened.

When a person becomes debilitated by fear, life comes to a screeching hault. It’s difficult even to look up and see other people and God, let alone just complete simple tasks that used to come easily. I want to emphasize that, although these fears may find their root in sin committed against us or by us, they work themselves out in such a way that keeps us from living our lives. Practically, we need to find tools to help us get through the day. So if this is you, I want to speak specifically to your struggle.

Go to the doctor. If you go to a general practitioner (not a psychiatrist), you’ll need to equip yourself to share things he or she may not ask. So before you visit your doctor, gauge your level of anxiety on a daily basis (for at least a month if you can). The best thing to do is write your anxiety level as a number on the calendar each day. The scale can be 1-10 (1 is no anxiety, and 10 is the highest anxiety you’ve ever felt). The criteria for diagnosis of anxiety disorder is that you be experiencing anxiety or worry for at least six months, but it’s helpful to have specific information for your doctor rather than just saying, “Yep, I’ve been anxious for more than 6 months.”

Important Note: If you’re experiencing panic attacks and/or intense fears that are immediately debilitating, do not wait a month to visit your doctor.

When you visit the doctor, go prepared to share the following information:

  • Give him/her your anxiety calendar and explain it.
  • Share any traumatic or stressful events that have happened in your life over the past year.
  • Talk about the areas of your life that are hindered or debilitated by this anxiety.

Keep in mind: doctors function in medicine. I know, duh. But remember that your doctor will almost certainly hand you a prescription for an anti-depressant or an anti-anxiety medication. Medication may be part of what you need in order to work toward healing and hope. However, it’s definitely not the only thing you need, and it may not be what you need at all.

After going to the doctor, arrange to speak with a trusted and mature Christian friend. Talk with him or her about what’s happening and ask for prayer in making good decisions regarding your mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Finally, get in touch with a biblical counselor or program at your church that allows you to work through these difficult issues over a period of time. You are not designed to figure this out and get better on your own. You need the Body of Christ to walk alongside you. If you want to figure it out on your own, you’re probably functioning in shame. Recognize your need and move toward others and God, knowing that what you’re experiencing is not crazy or even rare. When life becomes overwhelming (which it does for everyone), it’s time to reach out with greater intentionality than ever before.

Do you have specific questions about fear and anxiety? Please comment on this post. If you want it to remain private, just let me know and I won’t post your comment publicly.