Guest Post: Anxiety and Betrayal Trauma
Anxiety might seem irrational when it shows up. Most of us have become accustomed to judging our emotions, especially the inconvenient ones. Anxiety shows up unannounced and pulls us in, it can rob us of the present moment and send us back into past pain. But anxiety makes sense when you’ve gone through betrayal, or when you’ve had anything painful happen to you in a place where you made yourself vulnerable. If we can learn to pay attention and not judge our anxiety, push it away, or try to rationalize it, we can meet that deep need for safety at a heart level.
There’s no one right way to heal, but there are lots of tools to help you along the way, no matter how anxiety might be manifesting in your life. I find these 4 things to be helpful in pulling you out of the anxiety trap when it lies before you – or when you’re already in it – and bringing you back into safety:
Anxiety is a symptom of a dysregulated nervous system. Operating from anxiety is operating in a triggered state, which means we’re not in our rational brain. As a mom, I’ve learned a lot about co-regulating with our little ones. When my daughter is crying and has no ability to regulate herself, it’s up to me to step in with a calming presence and sooth her emotions. This has been a challenge, but so rewarding for our connection. Anxiety can make us feel like that child, with no ability to self-sooth, but if we notice symptoms early, we can step in and regulate our emotions. Regulation can look like anything that brings you a sense of inner calm. Taking deep breaths, grounding yourself outside in nature, meditation, or contemplative prayer are a few examples. If you’ve already entered into a state of panic, getting around or calling someone who can help you co-regulate might be helpful. Feeling safe in our bodies is a prerequisite for working through the deeper issues of where your anxiety is coming from. It’s hard to heal if we don’t feel safe.
Once you feel safe in your body and in a state of calm, you can begin to ask questions to get to the deeper, root issue of anxiety. Like all our emotions, anxiety is an alert trying to tell us that something is wrong – that something inside of us isn’t feeling safe. Here is a list of good questions you might ask yourself:
Where don’t you feel safe?
Is your anxiety appropriate for the situation in front of you, or is it coming from somewhere else, maybe a past experience?
What are you truly afraid of in this moment, is it rejection, abandonment, feeling unworthy of love, etc.?
What does your heart want to say to you about this situation right now?
The key with investigation is to follow your curiosity and let your heart speak, because it wants to be heard by you.
Validation is the recognition and acceptance of someone’s internal experience as being valid. We often reject, ignore, or judge our own emotional experiences, which doesn’t help us to feel safe and heal. Self-validation is the recognition and acknowledgement of your own internal experience. It doesn’t mean you’re agreeing with all your feelings or thoughts, but it allows them to have a voice and be seen and heard, which is a vital part of any healing process.
Validating statements can sound like this:
“It makes sense that you’d be feeling this way because of what happened to you.”
“I can see why that would make you feel anxious because this situation is bringing up past feelings of abandonment.”
“I’m so sorry you’re feeling scared right now, it can be really hard to open up to people after your trust has been broken.”
Acknowledging that the internal experience exists and is understandable is one of the most powerful ways you can show yourself compassion.
After you’ve validated the anxious feelings coming up, it’s important to remind yourself that you’re not in the situation that made you feel unsafe anymore, and that safety is always available and accessible. You can do this through affirmations, visualizations or anything that creates a resource of safety inside of you that you can tap into. It might be picturing a favorite memory where you felt celebrated and loved, or speaking loving words to yourself about what you’ve been through. You can do this aloud or even write it out in a letter.
Another part of empowerment is taking ownership, and cleaning up the messes that we make in our lives, within ourselves or in our relationships because of anxiety. Taking ownership can create safety in our relationships. It invites others into our process as we learn how to both give and receive support in the midst of the mess.
Speaking to the Heart
I like to combine these steps into what I call a heart talk, or a self-compassion talk. I put one hand on my heart as a way to connect with myself, regulate my breathing and do some grounding, and then proceed to ask good questions, validate my experiences, and finally bring myself back into a place of safety through empowerment and affirmation. It can take as little or as much time as needed, and always helps me move into the next thing in front of me with more clarity and connection.
A heart talk can help you connect your anxiety to what’s happening deep on the inside. It enables you to be present and move through the emotion into healing, instead of getting stuck in the emotion, trying to run away or shutting it down completely. Taking your time to move through anxiety when it comes up is key to finding healing.
Anxiety is a very painful reality that can come in response to trauma of any kind, but it doesn’t have to become the new normal. Instead of looking at anxiety like it’s a problem, let’s look at it as an invitation to let love into the parts of your story that need it the most, and heal so we can learn to be vulnerable again, to build trust and safety again, to take risks and be bold again.
Dear heart that is reading this, what you’ve been through was painful, and it makes sense that you would have anxiety come up. I’m so sorry for all the places anxiety has stolen from you and caused you to feel like you’re missing out on life and relationships. Your need for safety is valid, and you don’t have to have all the answers and know all the outcomes to be safe. You’re going to be safe and loved no matter what happens. You are worth listening to and being understood, you are seen, known and loved. You’re going to be ok, you’re going to make it through this.
About this contributor: Tori Henares is a volunteer with Hope After Betrayal, whose mission is to provide Christ-centered hope and healing for women injured by their partners’ sexual betrayal. She is also a personal coach pursuing wholeness and emotional health from a place of rest. Connect with her via TheUnhinderedLife.com.