How to stop stress and anxiety from getting out of hand and triggering past trauma : 5 Tips | Co-written Alysha Jeney, MA, LMFT, and Psychotherapist for Modern Love Counseling
Have you ever noticed your hands getting sweaty on a first date or felt your heart pound during an exam? Well, then you are aware that you can feel stress/anxiety from both your mind and body. When we go through stress/anxiety, our bodies flood our nervous system with cortisol and adrenaline putting us in a state of “fight or flight”.
If you have experienced old traumatic events such as childhood abuse or disloyal relationships, then you know that any stressful experience can activate your hidden memories or “triggers” automatically. These memories are typically hidden to protect us from recurring emotional pain. However, over time these memories, triggers or chronic stress/anxiety can cause psychological complications in all areas of our life.
Anxiety and stress can be debilitating. Approximately 40 million American adults — roughly 18% of the population — have an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. The combination of reactions to stress/anxiety is known as the “fight-or-flight” response. This was intended to be a survival mechanism enabling a quick response in a threatening situation.
“The sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses help an individual fight the threat off or flee to safety. However, the body can also overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as societal pressures, family difficulties, and relationship conflicts, but can still give off the same chemical reaction.” In an article by HARVARD HEALTH PUBLISHING.
Why Is This Important To Know?
Because the modern human is not generally fighting off man-eating predators, but is often facing emotional/societal external pressures, we can be fueled with fight or flight energy daily. This can lead to high blood pressure, anxiety disorders, chronic depression, addiction, and obesity.
It is important to be aware of how your body reacts to stress/anxiety in order to consciously stop yourself from going down a mental storyline or memory that only feeds your perception of the threatening situation, (i.e. feeling more stress/anxiety and/or experiencing past trauma).
Here’s an example:
It’s March 2020 and Samantha is soon to be graduating. She is experiencing lockdown with her new boyfriend, roommate and roommate’s boyfriend for over a month. She recently lost her job, had a quarantined birthday, took her last quarter of college online and continued to experience tragedies in her family. She was frustrated, disappointed and angry, but she bottled up her emotions and became even more isolated.
Samantha was unaware that the stay-at-home policies had created a reality where she was reliving a similar negative experience from her childhood.
“Growing up it was difficult for me to feel like I had a sense of self-identity in my household. I did as I was told, suppressed my feelings and was always at home because my parents wanted to keep me safe. When I got to college, I learned how to be independent, speak up when I wanted and cope with my stress through working out and eating healthy. Quarantine changed everything because I felt like I couldn’t do much on top of the fact that my boyfriend kept demanding me around. It had been a long time since I felt this much confinement and I was shutting down.”
The frustrating experience of feeling trapped again caused Samantha to no longer feel in control. Her “fight-or-flight” mechanism kicked in and she reacted to it as she innately knew how to. In times of stress our brains revert to how we once used to handle situations, which can cause us to regress our growth and forget how to move forward. Does this sound familiar?
Before you get too stressed out reading this article, it is important to know that not all stress is “bad” stress! Momentary stress, such as last-minute assignments, or tight deadlines can boost your brain’s performance. It’s just about establishing a balance.
Here are 5 tips on how to stop stress and anxiety from getting out of hand and triggering past trauma:
Tip #1 How to Stop Stress and Anxiety: “Sit in your sh*t”… err, emotions.
You’re probably wondering, how can I stop myself from triggering past trauma? Well for starters, we would advise that first you sit with the feeling no matter how uncomfortable it is. Intentionally, focus only on your emotions at that moment. Try saying out loud to yourself, “I feel ______ and it’s ok.” (Use this emotion wheel if you are struggling with identifying your feelings.)
“Why is sitting with your emotions helpful? Well, because like anything, an emotion is fleeting. We promise the feeling will pass when you don’t attach a storyline to it, even if the storyline was once your reality, it doesn’t mean it is in this moment.”
When the feeling does pass, you will have a better understanding of how you truly feel, not just be stuck in a reaction of flight or flight. You will also start feeling more empowered to face your stress/anxiety without feeling completely out of control and debilitated with undesirable symptoms.
Tip #2 How to Stop Stress and Anxiety: You don’t have to believe everything you think.
Try not to think about old upsets, by simply saying to yourself, “I don’t have to listen to everything my thoughts say.” When you suffer from stress and anxiety, you are having a complicated relationship with both sides of your brain: the cognitive brain and the emotional brain. Anxiety is only felt when signals from the emotional brain overpower the cognitive brain and into our consciousness.
When you have thoughts that your anxiety will never get better, that’s your emotional side of the brain working to protect you in case of failure. It can feel like your mind is torturing you to worry, analyze, seek reassurance, or shut down with thoughts of what could go wrong; but your mind is doing what all minds do, it is warning you in order to keep you safe. So, be conscious of what is happening and enable the thoughts to come and go and realize it’s your mind doing it’s job.
The important thing is not what thoughts you have, but what you do when you have them in that state. So the next time your mind starts filling your head with triggers, reassure yourself that it’s a false alarm and sit with the emotion without listening to your brain.
Tip #3 How to Stop Stress and Anxiety: Quick, don’t react!
Refrain from an immediate reaction, by realizing that it is only an attempt to control the situation or get out of it. If you give in and react, you begin to lack logical thinking as your body and mind regress to old coping mechanisms. If you identify how you react to stressful situations, you can put yourself in a better position to manage it. Even if you are unable to eliminate stress from your life, how you react to it can determine whether you regress or progress.
According to Mayo Clinic these changes can significantly improve your stress and anxiety levels:
- Cut back on your obligations when possible. Take a look at your schedule and find activities, meetings, chores, or dinners that you can cut back on for the time being. That way you don’t overwhelm yourself and accidentally react right away.
- Prepare ahead. Stress begins to pile on when you run out of time. Stay on top of things that may trigger stress (meetings, trips, appointments, family dinners, etc) and schedule realistic goals to get each task done. For example, if traffic jams stress you out then build that time into your schedule so you don’t overload your mind.
- Pick up a new hobby. When you start something exciting and new, it can calm your restless mind. Try art, gardening, reading, etc – but make sure these things don’t cause you to get competitive because the goal is to stay relaxed and stress free.
- Stay Active. Scientists have found that exercise benefits can soothe stress levels and give you a feeling of power over your body and life.Exercising, and physical activity produce chemicals in the brain known as endorphins which can enhance your brain’s emotional need of feeling good and positive.
By learning new ways to handle the situation before it occurs, it can put you in a better position to manage stress and anxiety. So, always remember to take a step back, and refrain yourself from the impulsive reactions before they control you.
Tip #4 How to Stop Stress and Anxiety: Practice Mindfulness Daily
By practicing mindfulness regularly, you will improve your brain function, which will enhance your ability to avoid excessive stress. It increases your capacity to savor the pleasures in life, helps you engage in activities and creates healthier ways for you to deal with stressful events.
Behavioral therapists state that, “By focusing on the here and now, many people who practice mindfulness find that they are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past, pay attention to their thoughts and sensations without judgment, and are able to improve physical and mental health over time.” In an article by HARVARD HEALTH PUBLISHING.
Mindfulness meditation works to build your concentration. Here are a few mindful techniques:
- Sit quietly and focus on your breathing as you let your thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations come and go without judging how you feel about it. Just let them pass through.
- Pay attention to what comes to mind and discover whether it’s a physical or mental need that seems to pop-up the most. Do not focus on a particular feeling or idea, but rather allow your thoughts to flow, to evaluate the habits. This will give you a better understanding of what to work on for later.
- Continue the process daily. It may not seem relaxing, but over time it provides the key to unlock wider and wider ranges of thinking.
For more mindful meditation techniques visit, Benefits of Mindfulness.
Tip #5 How to Stop Stress and Anxiety: Connect the dots.
By understanding your trauma and coping mechanisms, it may be very helpful for you to realize which ones still work for you and which ones provoke more stress. Marla Paul, Health & Medicine Editor showed that individuals remember hidden traumatic events when they are in a similar state of mind:
“A process known as dependent learning is believed to contribute to the formation of memories that are inaccessible to normal consciousness. Thus, memories formed in a particular mood, arousal or drug-induced state can best be retrieved when the brain is back in that state.”
In other words, our minds are able to remember past memories when under a similar amount of stress and may provoke us to behave in ways we used to.For example, if a child had to parent their parents growing up, they may have learned to cope by being super self reliant and rigid in their behavior. When the child grows up, they may find themselves incredibly overwhelmed with daily tasks and often have panic attacks because they don’t know how to ask for help.
If they never connect the dots from childhood to current panic attacks, they may never see that their coping strategy to be self reliant has its limitations in adulthood.It is important to recognize that our bodies will naturally want to revert to its old ways of coping, but by being aware of and practicing new coping strategies will only remind us that our past can only have control over our future if we allow it.
Want even more support with your anxiety and stress? Contact a therapist and explore how they may help! Or sign up for a free 30-minute consultation with me to help you explore yourself and the relationships in your life.