In my work with students and clients in my private practice, I’ve found that some take to emailing while away on business or at college. Yesterday I received an email from a college student and they asked some great questions. They have always had a desire to sincerely learn about what is going on for them and how they might move forward. They gave me permission to share our exchange and they were happy to contribute this in the hopes that someone might benefit or not feel so alone. Also, you’ll notice that I respond to a personal question at length. It’s my belief that our stories are powerful and when shared, a greater sense of community and hope can evolve from it.
Q – My current theory is that I’m doing poorly because I can’t handle feeling safe all the time and can’t handle doing well. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and things to go south, but they don’t and the anticipation is killing me. Here’s my question. Is that normal for someone to feel when they’ve experienced abuse? Does my theory have merit? Is there a word or phrase for it so I can google more information on it?
Answer – This is normal for anyone who has experienced trauma or has been subjected to highly anxiety-provoking people or situations for prolonged periods of time. So you actually hit this one right on the money. When we experience these consistently high levels of anxiety, we start to become very hypervigilant (aka, constantly scanning others and our environment for threats). Furthermore, anxiety moves us to naturally protect ourselves and when these basic emotions are mixed with the human intellect that is able to imagine and anticipate, things go a bit haywire. Meaning, the mind gets narrowly focused on any and all negative outcomes that are possible. In this way, our brain is so well trained to be afraid of and relate to others or the world as a threat that it develops a habit of constantly protecting us as though we’re living in a war zone.
Sadly, it doesn’t equally acknowledge that things could turn out okay or even great! As if this wasn’t enough, it severely overestimates just how bad things might turn out or how an experience will be (aka, catastrophizing). And lastly, when we believe that our thoughts, impulses and emotions are facts, truth and must be acted upon, then we become completely consumed by our automatic reactions. What we need is more mental space to think and to increase our in-the-moment awareness so that we can use the analytical part of our brain while we’re still feeling what we’re feeling. This is why it is so important that we spend time reflecting and contemplating through journaling or something similar when we’re in a calm state.
Q – And here is the personal question that, as always, you can choose not to answer. Did you ever go through this? Does it go away? How do I better cope? How did you do it?
Answer – I’m happy to answer this one and yes, I definitely went through something like this. In my situation, the chronic and intense anxiety and random panic attacks were pretty intense from my earliest memories. Both lasted until my freshman year in high school before they started to ease up. Because there was so much explosive anger at home, I had a general fear of people, especially authority figures, because my brain always told me that they were going to go off on me and punish me severely. What I said in my answer to your first question totally applies to the younger me. For example, I loved playing football but when I played during my sophomore year I was working with varsity coaches that were meaner and yelled a lot. Unfortunately, this increased my anxiety just enough so that I couldn’t think straight and remember the play beyond the very basic thing that I needed to do. You could say that when I got anxious, my mind had a kind of tunnel vision to it. As for this changing, I can say that it did and can for anyone, but everyone’s path is different.
Change, improvement and growth started when I wanted to go to therapy to feel better and get help at the age of 10. It was there that I learned the importance of having a safe place to be and express my messy internal experiences and that reflecting on these was important. Therapy was my ultimate safe place but I had to allow myself to be fully open, raw and honest with myself and my therapist. Of course, this didn’t go perfectly every time, but I trusted that my therapist was a person for whom I could truly get help. Around the age of 11, the fighting in my home decreased a lot, and I felt some relief. When I became more independent in high school I also felt more relief, even though I had periods of depression. I continued with therapy between the ages of 10 and 20 and worked hard to learn about myself, other people, to question my assumptions and beliefs, gain insight into who I wanted to be and I worked tirelessly to make the changes in myself that would allow me to feel content. I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to feel content in my lifetime, but I did know that the worst thing that could happen is that I wouldn’t feel as bad as I did so long as I kept pushing forward.
Along the way, there were some breakthroughs and big insights, relapses and mistakes, and there were times when I was exhausted and didn’t try so hard. Despite these ups and downs, the trend was always in the positive direction. One thing I realized was that in order for me to change and experience life differently, I needed to challenge myself and do things that needed to be done but were uncomfortable. This takes a lot of stubbornness and courage, that’s for sure. The other thing that I realized is that I needed to have at least one person for whom I felt deeply accepted by, who saw me for me, and who supported my attempts to experiment with and change myself. For me, that one person was always my therapist (I worked with a few different ones over time as my needs changed).
When I started living on my own and moved from the Chicago area to Tempe, Arizona, I found a great deal more relief because I did not know anyone. My first day alone in my apartment, I sat in my box filled living room looking out into the apartment building’s grounds and thought, “No one knows me. I could be anyone to everyone.” It was then that I realized that I had complete freedom from my past because nobody would expect anything from me. I firmly decided, in that moment, that I was committed to being the most authentic version of myself each and every day, without apology. This is when my anxiety took an even bigger nosedive. Now, 24 years later, I only feel little hints of it once in awhile in the back of my mind when I encounter a situation that my brain links to the past. Needless to say, I am an absolute believer that we can overcome most any difficulty or pain that we experience. We just don’t know how long it will take and we need to let go of trying to anticipate when this will happen. As for your question about coping, there are a few things I would recommend.
First, expect this to be hard, difficult, uncomfortable, messy, imperfect, upsetting, exhausting, amazing, gratifying, inspiring and frustrating. As you push yourself to improve, you’ll become very proud of yourself, realize that you had more strength in you than you thought, you’ll be more confident and you may even come to enjoy facing difficulties because we learn so much more about ourselves and the world through them. This helps us move closer and closer toward contentment and our potential. So the name of the game is to face your fears, walk into them as much as you can, create the person you want to be, learn how to embrace distress while doing what you need to do to take care of yourself and your life, and repeat this every day and as often as possible.