Don’t Let Anxiety (or Trauma) Make Your World Smaller

Anxiety can take over your life. You can choose to take your life back.

Posted Nov 27, 2019

9091 images/Pixabay
Source: 9091 images/Pixabay

Do you struggle with anxiety? If so, it’s almost certainly making your world smaller. Anxiety likes to spread, often in a sneaky way. It starts out in one part of your life and then gradually takes over all sorts of other territory.

A few years ago, during a particularly difficult season, I went to see a doctor colleague for a check-up. Because of the prolonged period of stress, I thought that I should probably get some tests done (sure enough, the stress had impacted my body, but that’s a story for another day).

I was surprised when she seemed more interested in what had happened to me, than in ordering the tests.

My mental health journey has been very interesting to walk through. At first, I was diagnosed with depression during my residency training. So, I initially spent a lot of time learning, writing and speaking about depression. As I learned more about mental health, though, it became obvious that I’d had all the symptoms of severe burnout, too. In the last decade or so, the traumatic experiences that I had in medical school, residency and beyond (in both professional and personal contexts) have come to the forefront as a key player in the challenges I’ve faced. It’s all connected.

Trauma makes people anxious. Things that remind you of the traumatic experience make you even more anxious, so you start to avoid them. Anxious people, in general, want to avoid things that make them feel anxious. It’s perfectly understandable.

It’s not a good strategy though: I’ve written about this phenomenon before. If we over-protect our anxious brains, things get worse, not better.

My doctor saw this in me. As it turned out, she’d been through it too.

“If you’re not careful,” she told me, “your world will get smaller and smaller.”

When she said this, something woke up in me.

I had just been going with the flow. Things that my mind and body told me to avoid, I avoided. My world had been contracting so gradually, I hadn’t really noticed. And after all, wasn’t it worth the sacrifice, to be more comfortable and less stressed?

No. It wasn’t.

Because of her words of warning, I went and got formal treatment (from a trauma psychologist) for some of the more severe traumatic experiences. It helped quite a bit. For a while, I was happy with that.

With time, though (and with the input of beloved friends and family), I came to realize that it wasn’t enough. I was much less reactive and less stressed, and had gotten past some of the things that had happened - but my world was still too small. Something in my formerly adventurous, life-embracing spirit had died. That was not okay.

I had to become determined to take my world back.

You can, too.

It hasn’t been easy, and I still have some distance to go. It has been fascinating – and exciting, actually – to willingly open my eyes and observe just how many areas of my life have been impacted (have gotten smaller, or unnecessarily stressful) because of unwanted events that happened over the course of my life. Many of which I had no control over at all.

It's exciting to me, because every time I become aware of another area of my life that somehow got infected by anxiety (or trauma), I have another opportunity to get myself back.

I have control over what I allow myself to think. Much more control, than I ever imagined. I also have control over what I will choose to be newly brave about.

Our brains are incredibly plastic. The brain may inadvertently be “taught” - because of circumstances, biology, or conditioning – to be afraid, to run, to avoid (after the danger is long gone). But we can also heal our brains. We can "rewire" them, by teaching them to make new associations.

We can teach our brains to stand firm in the face of what we want to run from. To take small or even large steps in the direction of what we are afraid of, or are tempted to avoid. We can re-learn what victory feels like.

If your anxiety or trauma-related symptoms have been shrinking your life into something that’s becoming unrecognizable, fight back. Of course, it goes without saying that you would make sure to get a proper diagnosis and have qualified professional help. My spiritual faith has also provided me with a road map for healing, I just had to be willing to follow it.

So much of this is work that only we can do for ourselves. We must decide that we’ve had enough.

If I can do it, so can you.

We can take back that territory that has been stolen.

Copyright 2019 Dr. Susan Biali Haas