Anxiety After Trauma: How Do You Cope?
By Michele Rosenthal
I was thirteen at the time of my trauma. I’d had an idyllic childhood. It never occurred to me that something truly awful would happen to me, or that my parents wouldn’t be able to keep me safe.
My trauma went on for several weeks. When it was over I walked away from the experience with the realization that the world I had known had been redefined:
I am not safe.
No one can guarantee I will ever be completely safe.
I can do my best but there is, every day, the potential that I might be in danger, or will not survive.
How do we live in this kind of world? How do I live in a world where doctors can’t be trusted? How do I live in a world where my own body could almost kill me? How do I live in a world where every day there is the potential that I might die? As the result of these questions an enormous sense of anxiety became my daily experience. There were no good answers and so I fled from the questions.
On my quest to heal, however, I finally faced them all head on. Here’s the answer I embraced:
The truth is, every normal moment has the potential for trauma.
If you were blessed (as I was) not to be acutely aware of this before your trauma then you certainly are more than acutely aware of it now. And that’s the problem. After trauma it’s easy to live only seeing the danger, believing that you will most definitely see the next bad thing coming and be able to save yourself.
But that’s just wishful thinking. We’re not omnipotent. We have to live with the knowledge bad things do, in fact, happen to very good people.
Part of moving forward means facing that fact and finding ways to carry on. How do we do that? A few of my own thoughts:
1 – Stand up to fear. When something terrifies you it’s normal to shrink away. However, learning to survive survival means reversing that process; means standing face to face with fear and growing larger than it – so large you tower over it. To do this I had to feel strong, able to take care of myself, supported by people I could count on and connected to my own internal sense of courage. Achieving these things took time and a large focus on learning what made me feel afraid, what made me feel safe and how I could feel more safe more of the time.
2 – Develop practices that make you feel you can take care of and defend yourself. The more weak you feel the more frightened you become. On the other hand, the more in control you feel the less fear you experience. For me, part of recovery was education. I had to learn all there was to know about my trauma so that I could understand, foresee and devise a strategy to keep myself safe in which I am the primary safe-keeper.
3 – Forgive yourself for anything you feel you did wrong. You didn’t do something intentional that caused your trauma. Whatever happened that caused it – even if you feel you were accountable – you made the best decisions you could in the moment. In every moment, actually, you are doing the best you can. I had more than one thing to forgive myself for, and the biggest one held me hostage for years. When I let go of this it was an enormous relief.
When I stopped carrying questions and fears like stones I began to move forward and recreate a world I could live in with knowledge but not overwhelming fear.
What helps you release the questions and carry on?