It happened again.
I should have been used to it by then, but it still felt like a whole new shock to my system.
I struggled to form words. I shook. I paced. I couldn’t catch my breath. It was as though a blender was going off in my head and my body was convulsing internally.
I was having another anxiety attack.
During the first 10 years of my marriage, anxiety had become something I experienced regularly. So much so that I just assumed it was “normal”. I didn’t really know anything different.
Until I learned about betrayal trauma and began to understand what was really happening in my body.
Anxiety is often vilified and made out to be the enemy, when in actuality, it is a biological means of survival. When you understand how your body works and why you are experiencing anxiety, it is easier to have self compassion, as well as greater curiosity toward yourself. Anxiety isn’t out to get you or ruin your life. It’s ultimately your body’s way of protecting you.
When I understood that, I no longer saw myself as weak or broken or mentally ill. I recognized that I was simply experiencing trauma. And if you’re reading this, it’s probably because you are too.
Allow me a moment to paint a picture for you.
In the wild, there is a gazelle grazing in a pasture. Its surroundings are quiet and calm. The gazelle is relaxed and at ease, until it hears the rustling of branches. It perks up and notices a cheetah approaching. Adrenaline and cortisol are released and surge through the gazelle’s body as it immediately runs to get away from the danger. Its heart is pounding and its muscles contracting as it tries to get to safety. Once it finds refuge and the cheetah is lost in the dust, the gazelle shakes to release the energy and carries on as though it wasn’t just at death’s door a moment before.
Would you expect anything different?
Of course not.
This is the way the body is designed. This is the way your body is designed. When there is a threat to your survival, your body has a fight-flight-freeze response, until safety is returned and you can fully process the experience. Trauma is what happens when you experience too much, too fast, or not enough for too long. That would be as though you are continually running from the cheetah, or when you slow down, you feel as though the cheetah is lurking around every corner.
When you’ve been betrayed, your reality and everything with which you have based the way you experience the world has been called into question. Your survival has been jeopardized and your body isn’t getting it’s rest.
In betrayal trauma, the surveillance system in your brain that takes in the information from your body’s sensations goes into high-gear to protect you, because a threat to the relationship is a threat to your survival. You are left worrying that each text message he gets is from another woman, or that there is another lie behind his words, or even, in my experience, fear that the next thing he says will be yet another knife to the heart.
Your body wants to protect you from these hurts, and because your body was hit with too much, too fast – or more than it can process – the fear center of the brain has essentially been hijacked and anxiety goes into overdrive.
So the question then becomes, how do we get it to calm down?
Let’s refer back to the gazelle.
When it saw the cheetah, its survival response kicked in and then what? It sought safety.
Safety is the priority in trauma healing. If your nervous system detects it is in danger, real or perceived, the survival responses will continue to stay activated. First, resources have to be built to establish safety and regulate the nervous system.
That is key for healing anxiety.
Since I began doing this work and tending to my nervous system, when I sense the alarm starting to go off, I extend compassionate curiosity and reach for my resources while doing it.
I know the pain of anxiety from betrayal trauma can feel all-consuming and life-disrupting, but I also know the beautiful moments when you can look back on that pain and disruptions with compassion and gratitude for how miraculous your body is to have gotten you through it. I know it because I’ve lived it, and I’d love to help you know it too.
One tool to use in calming your anxiety has to do with shifting your body’s orientation with a practice called grounding. This involves physically orienting yourself to your surroundings to ground yourself in the present. Anxiety screams to protect you from the dangers that could happen, so shifting the focus to the present moment and finding safety there, can soften the screams from the body’s alarm system.
To do this, take a deep breath in and on your exhale, allow your body to soften. Notice your surroundings, taking it in without forcing it. See where your attention is drawn to and just be with that. Perhaps you notice your feet making contact with the ground beneath you, or you notice the surface beneath your sit bones. Get curious with the interaction your body has with this surface. Take in this experience of your environment and your body’s engagement with it for as long as you’d like, just being with it to help your body center itself again.
About This Contributor: Carrie is a Certified Betrayal Trauma Coach and Trauma Sensitive Mediation and Mindfulness Practitioner. After a decade of suffering from the effects of Betrayal Trauma, Carrie found healing through Somatic Mindfulness. She now coaches women all over the world on how to heal their nervous system, restore trust in themselves, and develop greater self compassion.