Beyond Worry: Anxiety, Stress, & Trauma
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition in the US, coming in at around 19% of the population (ADAA, 2022). With our society’s changing views of mental health, it might be surprising to hear that only about 1/3 of those suffering with anxiety seek help each year. The problem seems even more dire if you consider the number of individuals who suffer with a sense of stress, worry, tension, or shame that they can’t even find words to describe let alone communicate or treat.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety can be understood as a sense of fear, tension, and uneasiness that goes beyond what is considered healthy and functional. In fact, anxiety activates parts of the brain that are designed to help with challenging situations but “overdoes it” by causing an overactivation and difficulty returning to a healthy state of being. Anxiety can be passed down through genetics or it can develop as a response to our environments (think: difficult circumstances, exposure to danger and uncertainty, discrimination, bullying, etc.). Anxiety can also be learned through observing and modeling others, such as our parents.
Not all anxiety manifests in the same way. In fact, “anxiety” is a broad term. The first thing that a therapist would do when hearing that their client suffered with anxiety would be to ask specific questions to better understand their unique experiences. Some individuals feel a sense of tension and fear when faced with social or performance situations. Others panic when they are in tight spaces or feel “stuck” in some way. A subset of anxious individuals tries to control the disturbing thoughts and images in their heads by creating rituals that seem to clear their consciences. Still others carry a sense of worry and “worst case scenario” beliefs with them wherever they go.
Within recent years, the stigma around anxiety has noticeably reduced. Although it’s beneficial to recognize how common it might be to experience symptoms of anxiety, we believe it’s also important to remember that suffering is not inevitable. In fact, there are highly effective psychological treatments. Check out our post on "exposure therapy."
What is Stress?
In our mainstream culture, stress has seemed to become an accepted norm. Stress is not really a feeling but a physical response to a situation that one perceives as challenging and as requiring more of them than what they have to give. For instance, stress might arise when a manager asks her employee to put in more than their share of work or when the latest credit card bill is much higher than what a person has in their bank account. When stress occurs, it causes a physiological process to begin. Technically, the stress response is healthy in its early stage because it provides an increase in energy, alertness, and concentration. However, if this continues for too long or if builds to a heightened state, the effectiveness of the stress response takes a significant dip. In fact, prolonged stress can not only lead to clinically significant anxiety, it can manifest in depression, insomnia, appetite changes, brain fog, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. For an in-depth look (and a visual depiction) see our Stress Response post.
What is Trauma?
Psychological trauma can occur in response to extremely threatening and disturbing events and often includes symptoms such as feeling on edge, mistrusting others, panic when faced with reminders of the event, and vivid nightmares. Another common symptom is avoidance of trauma “triggers.” Triggers are smaller symbols or reminders of the traumatic event itself. Triggers can include, but are not limited to, the smell of gunpowder, the sound of screeching tires, or the sight of a person that resembles a former attacker. (Note: people can’t be triggered, but trauma symptoms can).
Not every person who experiences a traumatic event is left with a longstanding trauma response. In fact, humans can adapt and cope with a great deal of difficulty; however, many personal and environmental factors can influence an individual to remain stuck within their trauma response and to require help with psychological processing in order to heal and move on. Thankfully, there are many effective methods of helping a person with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to safely process and heal from their suffering.
What do treatments for anxiety, stress, and trauma look like?
Rest assured that the mental health field conducts A TON of research on human suffering in general and anxiety, stress, and trauma in particular. Plenty of those researchers dedicate their careers to testing and identifying the most effective types of treatment for each condition and therapists choose those treatments based on their own training and their clients’ unique characteristics. As a field, we call this process “evidence-based practice” (and that’s something the Skyline Team feels very passionate about)!
So, what are the most effective methods for treating anxiety, stress, and trauma? First, it’s important to note that only a licensed mental health professional can provide a diagnosis and only after they’ve completed a personal evaluation. If an anxiety disorder diagnosis seems appropriate, there are very promising options for changing behavior patterns, underlying beliefs, and emotions. If it appears that an individual is suffering with stress, treatment might focus on the source of that stress and learning new strategies for coping, using their support network, and implementing boundaries and assertiveness skills. Finally, if it appears that a person’s symptoms arose in response to specific traumatic events in their life, their therapist might recommend a type of “trauma processing” therapy that they are trained to conduct.
Still not convinced?
At this point, we expect our readers to have some lingering doubts. Here are a few that we’ve heard over the years:
Q: Does having anxiety make me weak?
A: Not at all! In our opinion, having anxiety says more about a person’s life experiences than it does about the strength of their minds. Further, individuals who have experienced adversity tend to develop a network of creative strategies for navigating the world in the most effective ways that they can, many of which developed in early childhood.
Q: Do I have to tell people that I have anxiety?
A: Absolutely not. Therapy and diagnoses are confidential and having a diagnosed condition does not mean that anything else about a person’s life has to change. That said, many of our clients have found relief through speaking about their experiences aloud with others that they trust. Through doing so, a subset of those have learned that their friends or family members have also suffered with similar symptoms. In fact, as of 2022, 40 million adults in the US have reported experiencing an anxiety disorder (and mental health conditions are almost always underreported).
Q: If I’m stressed, don’t I just need a break?
A: Not in our informed opinion. Breaks are healthy and can be effective in lowering stress in the short term; however, many individuals feel just as stressed when they return to their typical lives. This likely happens because the sources of their stress are there waiting for them when they return. Instead, we advocate for real changes such as learning to implement healthy boundaries, communicating effectively with others, and using new coping strategies to handle distress.
Q: Do I have to relive my traumatic event in order to get better?
A: It depends. There are various evidence-based treatments for trauma and PTSD. Some of those treatments do require clients to tell a detailed story of their traumatic events but not all of them require this. Cognitive Processing Therapy, which is a treatment that some of our Skyline psychologists are trained to provide, does not require sharing a full trauma narrative but instead focuses on the beliefs and after-effects of a traumatic incident.
Why consult with a Skyline psychologist?
Over the years, we’ve helped A LOT of folks and seen their positive changes firsthand. Our psychologists have obtained specialized training for working with anxiety, stress, and trauma, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Cognitive Processing Therapy for PTSD (CPT), and Exposure and Ritual Prevention for OCD (ExRP).
As a team of doctoral level psychologists, we are trained to pay attention to the latest research and evidence-based methods. We’ve also conducted our own research over the years and helped to further the understanding of mental health research and treatment. We take our roles as psychologists seriously and regularly consult with other therapists who are just as passionate about this work as we are!
Check out our related blog posts below. If you are interested in talking with a Skyline psychologist about how we might help, request a free 15-minute phone consultation.