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?