Many people label a variety of stressful or uncomfortable experiences as “anxiety.” However, sometimes that experience may be more than just “anxiety.” A deeper look may reveal that there are painful, traumatic experiences that’s creating the emotional stress. When you hear the word “trauma” or “trauma reaction”, you may be confused about what this means. The distinction between anxiety vs. a trauma reaction is important because they often require different ways in navigating the path to healing. While the presentation of both varies greatly, here are 3 important distinctions between anxiety and a trauma reaction.
1. The Presence of a Traumatic Event:
A traumatic event is the biggest element that separates a trauma reaction from classic anxiety. General anxiety may stem from stressful life changes like moving to a new city or school, becoming a first time parent and loss of a job. Often it is not prompted by a specific, traumatic event. However, traumatic reactions can be prompted by a wide range of “traumatic” events. Life threatening situations or events that leave one badly injured tends to be more “obvious” traumatic experiences. Some general examples include:
- Serving in war
- Being hospitalized for major injuries from a car accident
- Being diagnosed with or living with a serious a medical condition (cancer, organ transplant, heart issues, etc.)
- Witnessing a sudden and violent death of someone close to you
- Being badly hurt while walking to your car at night
- Being violently sexually assaulted or abused
- Surviving a major natural disaster that destroyed your home.
There are also many examples that you may not think of as trauma, but typically are. These experiences may not be life threatening, though they leave your sense of security, trust and emotional well-being seriously compromised. Some examples of this include:
- Being separated or taken from your family during childhood
- A caregiver abruptly leaving your family during childhood
- Waking up from anesthesia during surgery
- Enduring or witnessing domestic violence
- Your basic needs being neglected by adults when you were a child
- A romantic partner/friend forcing touching, kissing or sex with you
- Enduring chronic emotional abuse like put-downs, name calling and harsh criticism.
2. The Main “Direction” of the Pain:
The difference between trauma reactions and classic anxiety is where the distress comes from: the past (trauma) or the future (anxiety). After surviving a traumatic event, your life can drastically change. It can feel like you are living in an alternate reality. You now have a colored lens that has changed your view of the world, others, as well as yourself. Things that you used to love doing have lost their appeal. You see yourself much more negatively than before and your level of trust in others has deflated. Things that you did without batting an eyelash, like going out on a Friday night with friends, taking mass transit, driving to the grocery store, now seem frightening.
On the other hand, classic anxiety can be “free flowing.” It may relate to many things that haven’t happened yet. Examples may be worrying about what could go wrong with a work presentation or how you’ll get through next semester’s classes. Anxiety can also come from worries about what others think about you. For example, you might think you’ll be laughed at if you dance at a wedding or you’ll be judged when you ask for help at school/work.
3. What is Replayed “Over and Over”:
If you are experiencing a trauma reaction, you might often have memories or thoughts about the event that just “pop up” out of nowhere. Other times something reminds you of what happened. It’s like the scariest part of a horror movie playing over and over again. When those scenes make their (unwanted) appearance, you can also feel a rise in fear, horror, anger or shame. The difference with classic anxiety is that you may experience worry thoughts (like those about the future or what others think of you etc.) that come one right after the other. These types of thoughts are more similar to constant “background music,” rather than a movie scene on repeat. This music may change in volume from time to time, sometimes very soft and other times loud. The primary emotion that typically accompanies this music is anxiety, though you may also feel frustration or shame.
Parsing out the differences between classic anxiety and trauma reactions can be challenging. Stay tuned for my next blog in this series where I will talk more about what a trauma-related disorder looks like.
Check out the whole series on trauma
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Brave Minds Psychological Services helps children, teens and families overcome severe anxiety, stress, and painful experiences. We specialize in developing brave minded youth that can move forward despite fears and significant challenges.