These Overlooked Traumas Can Lead to Anxiety

by | Nov 29, 2020 | Anxiety, Intrusive Thoughts | 45 comments

We talk a lot about big T traumas in psychological circles these days, which are the moments or experiences that overload our capacity to cope and cause us to go into fight, flight, freeze or fawn. These might be: growing up with addiction or abuse; repeated bullying; loss of a loved one; parents’ divorce; growing up in poverty; systemic racism. We know that these experiences, especially in the absence of consistent, skilled, and loving support, can result in a trauma response and lay down the tracks for future coping mechanisms that, while help us survive the early trauma, at some point need to be addressed and replaced with healthier ways of managing life.

What we discuss less frequently are the more subtle experiences – sometimes even micromoments – that can jolt a young person’s psyche into overload and set into motion an anxiety response as a way to cope. These are moments which, especially for the highly sensitive child, send the message: “I’m not safe.” As anxiety and its emissaries of symptoms, including intrusive thoughts, compulsions, and panic, arrive with the intention of attempting to create safety and control, identifying the moments that initiate their arrival can facilitate the healing process.

I will pause here to say that, while we don’t need to know the root causes of anxiety in order to heal, the highly sensitive temperament is also the highly inquisitive mind, which means that cognitive understanding of roots causes is, for some, an important element in the healing equation. Today’s dominant healing model, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, places very little weight on root causes, and even goes to some lengths to avoid discussing early pain and trauma. They operate from the mindset that says, “Eradicate the symptom and you’ve solved the problem.”

While I agree that there are times when symptom reduction is necessary in order to work on the deeper levels and I recognize the power of addressing cognitive distortions and challenging fear through behavioral changes, because of my training and ardent love of depth psychology, I cannot overlook the power of exploring the origin of symptoms. And if you’re on my site, I imagine you have the same longing for more depth than the mainstream model offers.

I wrote a few weeks ago about some of the deeper root causes of anxiety and intrusive thoughts. You can find that post as well as the corresponding PDF here. I also wrote about another overlooked cause of anxiety here.

Traumas with a small t are another under-discussed area that can lead to anxiety. We carry a strong cultural belief that shows up as this question in my practice, “If I didn’t experience any trauma and I came from loving parents, why do I have anxiety?” It’s easy to name the more obvious sources of pain, which leads many people to invalidate the micro-moments or less culturally-sanctioned sources of pain. Yet invalidating sources of pain doesn’t mean it wasn’t painful or scary. Let’s name them now.

The following commonly occur in the growing up years:

  • Watching horror films and the news
  • Being raised by caring parents who are emotionally disconnected and, as such, are unable to meet and attune to their child’s emotional needs.
  • Birth trauma
  • Sleep trauma
  • A move
  • Loving parents commenting on a child’s weight
  • A teacher who doesn’t “get” a child and may covertly bully her
  • Painful experiences with peers: being kicked out of a group; being teased; feeling like you don’t belong (I wrote more about this here)
  • Feeling inadequate as a second-born same-sex sibling (ie the younger sister who always felt that she was in her older sister’s shadow)
  • Being separated from a parent at a store or mall, even for a fraction of a second
  • Religious trauma, like absorbing fear-based beliefs that tell you that you’re going to hell if you think certain thoughts or have certain feelings
  • Lack of community support and extended family
  • Lack of rituals to hold a child through loss, transitions, and time

As you can see, even in the most loving families, life happens and pain occurs. And even in the most loving families, the fact remains that we’re living in many broken systems, from religion to education to the isolated way that we’re expected to parent, that can create a sense of disconnection and lack of safety for kids. In no way do I believe that all religious or educational institutions are broken; rather, the point is that even one moment, one image, one belief can cause a rupture in safety that then leads a highly sensitive child to search for a foothold of control, which often arrives in the form of an intrusive thought.

As a parent, you can hear this in two ways: either as an inevitable indictment and curse to your parenting, which leads to guilt OR as a recognition that it’s impossible to protect our kids from pain and so we may as well let ourselves off the hook and stop trying to be perfect parents. I recommend the latter :).

What we can do as parents both with our actual children and for our inner child is to recognize that for the highly sensitive child it only takes one moment to hurt the heart and scare the soul. This means that we can set an intention to stop minimizing or invalidating the pain that inner and outer children carry in their hearts and make sure that we take time each day to slow down, put the phone away, and turn inward and toward with deep presence and curiosity. This might sound like asking, “Is there anything that’s scaring you today? Is there anything that’s making you sad?” then slowing down our cadence and quieting the voices so that we can listen for what emerges.

When you look back on your early life and growing up years, what “smaller” experiences or micromoments caused a rupture in your sense of safety and could be a root cause of your anxiety?

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45 Comments

  1. Thanks for this. I’m told the story that, aged two, I was left alone to scream in my bedroom all night, by myself. I think my well-meaning parents read in a parenting manual that this is what should be done. I have no conscious memory of this experience, but we keep coming back to it in my therapy. I often feel alone and unsafe as an adult, and use obsessions and compulsions to try to find this safety.

    Reply
    • I have no doubt that that’s a root cause of your anxiety and sense of unsafety. Research now clearly shows that babies and toddlers who are left to “cry it out” are often traumatized. Have you found other ways to try to find safety – other than obsessions and compulsions?

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      • My writing helps, as does my analysis

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        • Wonderful. I’m wondering if you’ve done any trauma-release work around that early trauma in particular, and also if you’ve noticed any connection between inhabiting your body through exercise or movement and anxiety reduction.

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          • I haven’t done that kind of work, no. I’m sure it might be worth looking into. I hate exercise but that’s probably just laziness haha.

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            • The key is to find a form of exercise that you don’t hate! Even going for a twenty minute walk while listening to a podcast can help.

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      • Oh my goodness!
        That was totally me!
        My mom left me crying in my crib and I was so determined to get out I managed to climb over the railing and get out of the crib. She said she found me with red checks and snot coming down my nose as I was crying so hard from being left in there.

        How would you recommend someone heal from trauma?

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        • Working with a skilled therapist is a very effective way to work through early attachment trauma.

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      • My mother disclosed since I have been going through all this self work that I was a total daddys girl as a baby. When they divorced and I also later on found out my dad cheated and was living with the woman he cheated with they would leave my brother sister and I in the middle of the night. NO WONDER when I was younger I had a fear of being alone at the house or even scared to sleep sometimes at night. This would come to really hurt me later in life with relationships and what is currently coming up now in RA. I AM DOING the conscious wedding course.

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  2. I went down that list of small “t” trauma and was like ✔️, ✔️, ✔️…do you have any thoughts on working with the same sex younger sibling issue? For me, that ties together me being chubby and her being thin, as well as my being rejected by peers who then worshipped her.

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    • It’s a very painful and deeply embedded issue to work with. I recommend starting with dialoguing with your young self using the journaling technique I teach in The Wisdom of Anxiety.

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  3. Joshua and Sheryl,

    I, too, was told of being swaddled and left to cry it out alone as a baby because I was very colicky. Those stories have always stuck in my mind as if there was “something” there. Your comments really hit home! To this day I find it impossible to seek comfort when I am in tears; usually, I will wait until I am alone to cry. I hate to exercise as well!

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  4. This was a method of “sleep training” my parents used too but I didn’t know it until I my first child was born and my mom’s advice was to close her bedroom door and let her cry until she slept because that’s what she did with me and it worked! After she left I remember crying and crying and feeling so sorry for little me, left all alone to cry. I’ve always struggled with abandonment fears but also fear of being vulnerable. I am so glad to read this post and find some affirmation that for some of us these “small” traumas take root deep inside us.

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    • Yes, it’s a very common root cause of abandonment fears and the fear of being vulnerable. If you’re on Instagram I recommend following @australianpsychologist and @raisedgood for more on sleep issues.

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  5. Once again, you’ve nailed it. I’ve had some paralyzing fear (doing a bit better) since the American election. I’ve had someone very loving and trusting seem almost conspiracy theorist for me and giving me some information about not trusting the news, information about the illuminati etc. It shook me to my core. The reason why this triggered me so badly is because when I was a kid (around 10), my loving dad made me watch movies about the rapture where Christians would be burned alive singing the hallelujah chorus and were murdered for being believers. Being a Christian, and watching these movies at 10 years old, you can understand how traumatizing this is. Ever since then, anytime someone speaks of “the end times” I get some form of paralyzing fear. When this person was recently talking about various conspiracy theories talking about concentration camps for anti-vaccinators/anti-maskers etc, not trusting the news etc, this reminded me of the “end times” things and I went into an extreme panic. My head was spinning so much, I didn’t know what way was up. I didn’t know who to believe. I didn’t know where to get non-biased resources to figure things out for myself (and to be honest, I still don’t). I keep saying how I wish I could be a duck and let the water just roll off me. I don’t want to be so shaken by other people’s opinions of things like this, but I don’t even know where to begin to be okay. In addition to these small t traumas, I’ve also experienced some major T as well – sexual abuse, abandonment and betrayal by my mom, parents divorce, etc. Do I struggle so hard because of the lack of trust of others? How do I become the duck I want to be?

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    • It makes so much sense that the current situation would trigger that early trauma. If you’re not currently in therapy with a skilled and loving therapist, preferably someone who also does trauma release work, I strongly recommend it.

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  6. Well, I don’t know about micro-moments, per se. I was very sick when I was two, and lived off and on with active ulcerative colitis until I was 12 and a half. A person who was a parental figure for the first two years of my life just up and left, when I was at my sickest. And even though I grew up in a loving home, my mom and grandma worked a lot, and they worked a lot at night (when I felt the most vulnerable), and I and my siblings were often left with our aunt. It’s not that she was entirely unloving, but she is an emotionally disconnected person, and she does have a bit of a temper (which is better now than it was back then). We clashed a lot, I think now because she wasn’t equipped to deal with my emotions when I was a kid. (she’s an Aries sun/Aquarius moon and rising, while I’m a Cancer sun, Taurus moon, Aries rising. I also found it interesting to discover that our Mercury signs [communication] are Cancer and Aries [me and her, respectively]).

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  7. What a timely post! I’m about halfway reading the book “My Grandmother’s Hands” by Resmaa Menakem and was thinking how the recommended exercises to connect with the body sounded very similar or is exactly like the exercises you recommend to reduce anxiety! 🙂 For the everyday traumas with a small t, and microagressions, I can count so many. I love this “a recognition that it’s impossible to protect our kids [and inner child] from pain and so we may as well let ourselves off the hook and stop trying to be perfect” I suppose this is life. We live in a world full of traumatized individuals (big T and little t) carrying accumulated pain from today and generations before us. So it is better for us to let go of the illusion of perfect and just try our best. I hope you had a wonderful long holiday weekend, Sheryl!

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  8. I have recently been struggling with intrusive thoughts, relationship anxiety, and what I think may be OCD. I definitely experienced some of those little t traumas — painful experiences with peers, separation from parents in public places, and being left alone to cry as a child (as others said in the comments above). I was also in a pretty unhealthy relationship for a couple years prior to the relationship I am in now. Is it possible that my relationship anxiety (if that’s what it is) stems from these traumas/issues? My current partner and I have been dating for a little over a year now, and I didn’t start feeling anxious until about 4-5 months in. He asked to move in together recently and it seems to have triggered my worst anxiety spiral yet, making me question my feelings and commitment to the relationship and making it difficult for me to enjoy the relationship like I did before. Any advice for making these thoughts and worries go away?

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  9. I’ve heard of a method of EDMR to receive Trauma or PTSD. Have you heard of this? Does it work?

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    • EMDR is the most well-researched trauma-release therapy available today, and it has a high success rate as long as you’re with a very well-trained therapist.

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  10. I meant relieve PTSD

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  11. “This might sound like asking, “Is there anything that’s scaring you today?” This is brilliant. When asked to look inward and address what I am feeling, my mind goes blank or goes into total muddle. But the simple question, “what is scaring you today?” I can answer! So very helpful. Honestly- I feel as though the world moved one step closer to clarity and safety . Thank you. Teri

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    • Those moments of clarity and safety are gems, and I’m so glad the post helped you move closer to those spaces. x

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  12. I remember this coming to me when I took the “Trust Yourself” program and I could hold the experience of getting sick as a week old baby and feeling into that as early trauma. For my little body being flooded with antibiotics and all the health problems that’s likely contributed to, and for my mom fearing losing me and admitting that experience made it feel unsafe to get too attached and love me and likely starting some anxious attachment tendencies in me.
    The other one that came to mind with this article was seeing the trailer for Honey I Shrunk the Kids when I was likely 6 and story goes I couldn’t sleep for 3 nights and had nightmares for months after that. I vividly remember the stress of how these scary images would flood my mind right as I was heading to bed and how it became a fear of bedtime because that’s when I’d have these thoughts it felt like I had no control over and being left alone for the night with a brain like that felt like too much. And having such loving supportive parents who would lovingly tuck me in and listen to me talk but no I can’t sleep in their bed I need to sleep in mine… these days I’m dealing with sleep issues again, sleep tests show mild sleep apnea and sleep fragmentation and I’m struggling with the idea of “Really I need to strap a machine to my face in order to do this thing my body is supposed to do naturally but for some reason isn’t doing right?” I’ve been working with an acupuncturist to try to help the issue without a CPAP but that’s bringing up its own fears and resistance of is this being effective enough? So yeah struggling with sleep anxiety in various forms and this was an interesting connection to a deeper root of this issue. The hypervigalent body afraid to sleep, feeling any upper airway resistance as something that means “can’t go into deep sleep, that’s unsafe, might die”
    *brings inner parent online* let’s try to hold that part and give her the comfort and safety she was so desperately needing… can we let her know we’re here and she’s safe and not alone? What do we know now that we didn’t know then? What’s she need to hear from us in order to let go of this tightness and vigilance? Maybe let her know it’s safe to fall asleep, higher powers and ancestors and collective energies of community are holding us. And it’s ok if it’s not fixed all at once, it’s going to be a process and a long road. I’ve definitely been doing the one hand on my heart one hand on low belly meditations as I go to sleep, what are some other ways we can cultivate inner safety as well as loving kindness. Things to investigate and be curious about.
    Thank you for the space to write through and explore that. Big love to this highly sensitive and loving community

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  13. So glad to see you addressing these small “t” traumas…. I have found understanding that mindset SO helpful to really allowing me to see where some of my anxiety sticking points have been, especially having come from an emotionally safe family. For me, I think my biggest sticking point was being a straight A student as a way to be socially safe in the classroom and find my “place”. It all came unravelled once I left the academic world and had to figure out things without getting A’s- the nuances kind of did me in and the ROCD reared it’s head. Thank you.

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    • I’m so glad it was helpful :).

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  14. Can someone advise me, please?

    My therapist, although qualified in EMDR, refuses to do it as, after nine sessions he cannot see that I required / doesn’t support the idea that it works for the numerous and inevitable small Ts of life.

    I have had little major trauma, although I lost my dad very young (I can’t remember him) and, although I grew up in a loving family generally (my mum is not very reassuring), I have grown up with a terrible sense of loss and fear.

    I was unaware of this until I started dating. I suspect I wanted a man to make up for the loss/fear and of course no one can and the pain remains.

    I’m 52, peri menopausal and the intrusive thinking is worse than ever this year, despite therapy, antidepressants and HRT.

    Also, I feel very empty nesty for the first time, even though my girls are 28 and 23 and have left home for some time.

    Some of my friends the same age feel similarly, so it is probably the mid life transition, but it’s really hard 🙁

    My joy for life appears to have gone.

    Reply
    • Dawnymim – this is so interesting…..I’m 48, menopausal, and in July thought I had a nervous breakdown. I’ve always had anxiety, but it came off the rails – along with intrusive thoughts (which honestly have terrified me). I am now on anti-depressants and in therapy – but I find the timing around menopause to be something to look into further…….

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      • Hello Marci

        This year I suffered possibly the worst depression of my life – certainly the longest. Covid didn’t help us did it?

        I had anxiety badly in my early 40s and antidepressants really helped.
        But now, as I near menopause, the depression and tiredness became overwhelming. Anxiety no longer too bad for some reason.

        All symptoms apart from intrusive thinking have finally improved with axhigh dose of HRT – it took all year to get to this point (doctors aren’t always great with this stuff).

        Something about hormone change or imbalance seems to make the memories of what we have been through in the past become frighteningly intense.

        I hope Sheryl writes on this topic soon 🙂

        Reply
    • Have you read “The Middle Passage” by James Hollis? I also recommend “When the Heart Waits” by Sue Monk Kidd. She’s a deeply spiritual Christian, so if the Christian language doesn’t work for you that might not be the best fit. Jean Shinoda Bolen also has a few beautiful books on midlife.

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      • Hi Sheryl

        I have read the Midlife Passage and I enjoyed it.

        I will give the other books a try too!

        Thanks

        Reply
  15. This post was so insightful!! I was really surprised to see that some of these traumas can be form anxiety.

    I was born prematurely, around 4 months early. Neither of my mom or dad got to hold me for quite a long time time, a few months actually.

    Could this lead to fear of abandonment or relationship anxiety?

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    • Absolutely YES to your question.

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  16. I’m so aware of these little t’s, but there’s something powerful about seeing them here in this context. Lately I’m connecting various religious trauma elements (end times stuff, and painful betrayal by leaders on a few occasions) to the not fitting in and larger body elements. Today I’m really seeing my ten year old self (and grown up self!) so tenderly with all these heavy fears and experiences. Really fits with the things popping up lately.

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    • Thank you for sharing this, j. It sounds like you’re doing very deep and essential inner work.

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  17. Hi Sheryl –

    Awesome article. I’ve never thought about Trama with a small “t.” Any tips or tricks for identifying or listing out our small traumas?

    Thanks!

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  18. Sheryl,

    Thank you so much for your writing. I always find comfort and reassurance here, but especially with this article today. After discounting and doubting for a year or so, it is becoming more clear to me that I may have some degree of complex PTSD. I came from a loving, attentive family, but it was essentially an emotional vacuum. As a sensitive, empathic person, I didn’t know why I struggled with depression and anxiety off and on. It was super confused about why I didn’t feel loved while I was simultaneously doted upon. I was feeling crumby after a session with my therapist yesterday, caught in a feeling of shame. I picked up Pete Walker’s book on Complex PTSD (which she had recommended), and I realized I was in an emotional flashback, which revolved around this idea that something was/is wrong with me, that I must be fatally flawed. Reading your article is validating to me that repeated emotional neglect can be traumatizing. It’s taken me a long time to realize this because it seems so subtle. Anyway, I find a lot of comfort here, and that also feels healing. Thank you for being a supportive, reassuring voice that I never got when I was a kid.

    Reply
    • I’m so glad you found comfort in the article, Sarah, and it sounds like you’re doing very deep inner work. Keep going :).

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    • Beautiful, Josh. Thank you for sharing your poetry with us.

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  19. Sheryl –

    How do you deal with your partner not feeling like herself and you can see that. My girlfriend has intense depression and sometimes gets into fits of low energy and seeming like she doesn’t love me. How do I deal with this and keep the intense feelings of longing for her happy and energetic self down and calm? It affects me when she’s feeling down and it makes me feel like a bad person.

    Does this make sense? Hope you can give some wisdom!

    Reply
  20. After years of therapy, I don’t think I’ll ever understand how my past created such an anxious, troubled adult. My therapist thinks my deepest wound is misattunement – my parents loved me but didn’t ‘get’ me as an HSP. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s what she reflects back to me regularly. I was also bullied and struggled to fit in from age 3, remember feeling alone and uneasy at nursery, and kept a secret about something ‘bad’ I thought I’d done for years. I hadn’t done anything wrong but the belief that I’d done something bad and criminal ate me alive. I don’t remember this, but my Mum recently told me that my cousin ‘accidentally’ and ‘playfully’ suffocated me with a pillow when I was around one. My Mum found me lying on the floor behind the sofa unconscious. I have no idea how any of this has affected me, but these are the things I know occurred. I can see that, on paper, any one of these events might constitute as trauma but nothing seems to click. The understanding hasn’t created any sense of resolution or healing for me. I feel like I must be a deeply traumatised person because of how ferociously my symptoms show up, for example, I’ve had chronic pain daily following a break up 5 years ago. I’m trying so hard with the work to heal RA/anxiety but I’m desperate for transformation and relief. I feel like I put a great deal of work in for little to no reward.

    Reply
    • Misattunement can feel devastating. Also things like emotional volatility in parents (anger outbursts that aren’t repaired). But, as I’ve been writing about in recent blog posts, HSPs are highly attuned to the “brokenness” of the world and, without spiritual support from an early age, this can translate as trauma. More in this Sunday’s post…

      Reply

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