Trauma and anxiety are closely linked. Traumatic experiences can keep your brain hovering in survival mode, always on alert and anticipating.
Trauma occurs when you’re part of, or witness to, a negative experience that overwhelms your stress response and psychological ability to cope. War, natural disasters, abuse, witnessing death, and life threatening accidents are all examples of situations that may cause trauma.
After a traumatic event, it’s natural to go through a range of emotions, including anger, guilt, sadness, and confusion. These feelings depend on the nature of your experience, how closely you were involved, and how the circumstances relate to your inner belief system.
Across all themes of trauma, anxiety is a common symptom due to its role in your stress response, also known as your “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction.
Trauma is a negative experience that’s disturbing and distressing. It naturally results in thoughts and feelings that are also negative in nature, like sadness, anger, or fear.
When you’ve been through something traumatic, apprehension about it happening again and reexperiencing distress can result in anxiety.
The link between trauma and anxiety is deeper than just cause and effect, however. Anxiety isn’t inherently bad. It’s a part of your body’s stress response, which is a cascade of physiological processes that happen when your brain perceives a challenge.
Temporary anxiety is part of heightened alertness and awareness. You know hardship lies ahead, and you’re anticipating it.
In a typical stress response, anxiety goes away when the perceived threat goes away. But the nature of trauma can prevent anxiety from subsiding. Trauma is a state of psychological overwhelm. It can cause lasting structural and chemical changes in your brain that keep you locked in “fight, flight, or freeze” mode.
Constantly perceiving a threat can mean constantly feeling anxiety.
Persistent anxiety from the memory of trauma is just one-half of the equation. Changes in the brain from traumatic experiences can also affect how your brain recognizes threats.
Research suggests that trauma prevents the amygdala, which is the structure in the brain responsible for kick-starting survival mode, from differentiating between current and past threats. This means that reminders of past trauma can create the same level of anxiety as if the trauma were happening in the moment.
Is anxiety after trauma always post-traumatic stress disorder?
Persistent anxiety from trauma can be severe enough to lead to anxiety disorders like PTSD, but only a
Doctors diagnose anxiety disorders from trauma when symptoms are persistent and pervasive and cause significant impairment in everyday life.
Anxiety from trauma can look different from one person to the next. It can range in severity, and not everyone experiences every type of symptom.
It’s possible, for example, to have one or two major symptoms — like those seen in PTSD — but not meet the criteria for that diagnosis.
Examples of trauma-related anxiety symptoms include:
- avoiding people, places, and things that remind you of the traumatic experience
- reexperiencing the event through nightmares or flashbacks
- intrusive memories
- continually thinking about what happened
- feeling constantly on edge, tense, or hypervigilant
- increased heart rate, sweating, or shortness of breath when you think of the traumatic experience
- panic attacks
- difficulty sleeping
- trouble concentrating
- constant worry or sense of dread
- chronic aches and pains
- crying often
Anxiety from trauma is secondary to your experience. This means that overcoming trauma is key to treating your feelings of anxiety.
The Anxiety & Depression Association of America recommends the following tips for managing anxiety and stress:
- limiting substances that may enhance feelings of anxiety, like alcohol or caffeine
- prioritizing quality sleep
- exercising daily
- eating a balanced diet
- learning relaxation techniques, like structured breathing or meditation
- taking self-care timeouts, such as taking a short walk or listening to music
- working on celebrating your daily accomplishments rather than being self-critical
- engaging in humor
- becoming involved in altruistic work
- building or finding a support network where you can safely talk about anxiety
- practicing mindfulness
- having a distraction on hand, like a podcast or crossword book
- identifying your anxiety triggers so that you feel more in control
Not everyone needs treatment for trauma and anxiety, but it’s always OK to speak with a mental health professional about what you’re experiencing. If your symptoms prevent you from carrying out your daily activities, it’s a good idea to seek help from an expert.
Working with a therapist can help you process what you’ve been through. Even if you’re not living with a trauma-related disorder, therapy may help you recover from your traumatic experience sooner.
If you’re living with a trauma-related disorder like PTSD, specific psychotherapy approaches and medications may be a part of your formal treatment plan.
Mental health professionals typically treat trauma with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) frameworks. These approaches focus on restructuring unhelpful thought and behavior patterns while gradually providing safe, calculated exposure to the triggers of anxiety and other distressing emotions.
Common CBT approaches in trauma therapy include:
- prolonged exposure therapy
- cognitive processing therapy
- trauma-focused CBT
- group therapy
Trauma and anxiety are linked through your natural stress response as well as through alterations in brain structure and function that occur after experiencing trauma.
While many people don’t need treatment to manage trauma-related anxiety, speaking with a mental health professional can aid in recovery.
Formal treatment with psychotherapy and medications may be necessary when anxiety from trauma is causing an anxiety disorder like PTSD.