The weird and wild ways anxiety can make itself known and how trauma refuses to be ignored
There are so many ways that anxiety and PTSD can manifest. Many of them are unexpected and likely seem unrelated to past trauma. Here are some of the ways that PTSD has previously shown up in my personal life:
General dread: can begin days/weeks/months before an event I am anxious about – feels like a heavy weight, a dark cloud, etc. (depression). Increases as big events get closer. Can also occur if I have a lot of events or responsibilities when they are ongoing for long periods of time – feeling “worn down”
Nightmares: can be general stress dreams (teeth crumbling, losing control of a vehicle or myself, my loved one cheating on me, my children in danger, etc.) or very specific to the event
Ongoing physical symptoms: esophageal spasms (sometimes debilitating; requires strict and constant observance of my diet – no gluten, no acids, no spices, etc), stress headaches, migraines, fatigue
Insomnia: usually can’t sleep without a pill – or I wake up after a few hours and can’t get back to sleep again
Paralysis/procrastination: constant, invasive thoughts about a certain issue; feel stuck in cement or paralyzed by the thought of addressing all the many tasks that surround a problem. May put off important issues or procrastinate the things I really need to do by working very hard on less important things. This results in self-recrimination, feelings of guilt or shame, and frustration with myself. It also exacerbates the anxiety as deadlines draw closer and things haven’t been done
Avoidance/self-protection: removing myself from situations, loved ones, social events, etc. May ignore important issues (taxes, paperwork, accounting, etc.) that confuse me. Try to avoid at all costs doing anything that may upset someone else. Substance use to alleviate social anxiety and numb pain/depression.
Social anxiety: Difficultly with social interaction– feeling raw, exposed, self-conscious, stiff, awkward and stilted around others. Difficulty tapping into my own creativity in front of others
Repression: hold back thoughts, feelings or emotions which may upset someone else; constantly biting my tongue. Too “polite” to stand up for myself even when the situation calls for it, unless I feel cornered and begin having a panic attack – at which point my reaction may be disproportionately intense
Hopelessness: Often occurs when I am criticized or misunderstood by others. May occur when a conversation goes badly or the other party can’t understand or acknowledge my perspective, especially when they have attributed desires, motivations or emotions to me that are incorrect or have a false belief about my intentions.
Feeling Unheard: occurs often in my marriage, especially when the other party is unwilling to alter their original interpretation after my differing explanation. Especially exacerbated if I am accused of doing something I didn’t do. This results in a feeling of powerlessness and helplessness when I am unable to get through to someone, compromise, or otherwise resolve the situation. Shortly, feelings of frustration intensify into feelings of worthlessness, injustice, being convicted of a crime I did not commit, despair/desperation (lack of light at the end of the tunnel). May result in the desire to self-harm, or exhibit my intense emotional pain in some other way that cannot be easily dismissed or diminished by others. Feels like being trapped in a deep well of despair with walls too high to climb – imprisoned with no possibility of escape. Defeat.
Feeling overwhelmed: especially when a great number of tasks must be accomplished in a short amount of time. Constantly running through lists in my head of everything that needs to be done. Exacerbated by the belief that I cannot trust or count on most other people to lighten my load due to past experiences. Exhibits as a feeling of falling, spinning, stomach dropping, going black, claustrophobia, feeling crushed into the ground. May result in tears, the intense desire to avoid, walk away, give up, run away.
Panic Attacks: ears burning/tingling, adrenaline pumping, blood pounding in my ears, blood draining from my face, feeling dizzy, seeing stars or tunnel vision, tingling in arms, intense flight/fight response, mental confusion, heart racing, sweating, chest tightness, numbness in legs, voice rising (can’t control volume), inability to discuss issues calmly, inability to control emotional responses to a situation or temper my reaction, even in front of others. Mid-level loss of control.
Extreme anxiety: losing consciousness (fainting), feeling trapped like a wild animal in my own body, extreme urge to lash out or react in a physical way (slamming doors, banging head, pulling out hair), physical need to release intense physical energy, like I’m about to literally explode and blow apart into a million pieces if I don’t release the energy in some way. May leave the premises, drive like a lunatic, cry uncontrollably, contemplate physical harm to myself or no longer care about my personal safety. High-level loss of control. This has only ever occurred when arguing with Jared, never in any other situation.
SITUATIONS WHICH TRIGGER ANXIETY:
My sense of smell, hearing, and touch are VERY acute, sometimes to the point of aggravation. I become agitated and may react strongly when:
Physically uncomfortable: Too hot or too cold (high heat makes me faint – cold makes my arthritis very painful), in physical pain (which is constant, so that’s a hard one), extremely hungry (super distracting), tired, etc.
Encountering a bad odor – this seems silly, but it has been a SERIOUS issue for me. I become physically nauseated by these odors, and it makes me so uncomfortable that I become angry. My sense of smell is acute, so often others can’t even smell whatever it is that’s driving me crazy. Also happens when the kids leave food or milkshakes or something in my car. I avoid places that smell offensive.
Noises – I have a very low noise tolerance. Loud or discordant music, humming fridges, clocks ticking, etc. drive me crazy. I have to sleep with a fan on to drown out all the other noise in the house. I can get unreasonably angry when my classroom is being noisy for long periods of time (the constant ‘low roar’) OR if I’m in a dance club or something where the loud noise is incessant.
Over-Stimulation: I am incapable of working, especially on something that requires creativity and thought, when there is movement, noise, music, etc. around me. Get very agitated when I’m trying to get something done and trying hard to concentrate and I am constantly interrupted or distracted.
Sensitivity to light – I can’t handle rooms with florescent lights (extreme headaches). My eyes absorb too much light, so I have a hard time in the sun (must wear sunglasses at all times) – constant squinting, eyes watering, etc. Night driving, driving sun/snow is extremely difficult for me because I’m so sensitive to glare I am often literally “blinded by the light.” Makes me very anxious with driving because sometimes I can’t see, which is a terrifying experience. I am scared I will endanger my kids or other people on the road.
Clutter – anything on the floors, countertops, etc. Things left in the yard (tarps, buckets, shovels, etc) and not put away in the shed or garage. Sink full of dishes so I can’t get to it. Laundry all over the floor of the laundry room or clean laundry left all over the floor or couch. Throw pillows and blankets on the floor instead of on the couches. Overflowing trash cans or trash left on the floor/kitchen table/couch. Half-drank water bottles and ½ full pop cans everywhere. Shoes left by the front door where I trip over them. Coats/bags not hung up. I am literally incapable of thinking clearly in a cluttered room.
Walking into the house (especially after a very long day at work) and finding it a mess can cause an immediately panic attack, BECAUSE I know I will not be able to relax or rest until I clean everything up. I am unable to relax in a messy environment – I get anxious, confused and distracted.
Discordant colors – I feel most relaxed in monochromatic environments. Each room in my house has a color scheme of 3-4 colors. If there is something in that room that doesn’t match, it will drive me to distraction. So, for example, if the kids are in the blue room and they leave the matching gray throw blanket on the couch, it won’t bother me. But if it’s a red blanket, I will feel agitated and will need to put it away – it’s like a blinking light in my face.
Visual Disorder – I don’t really need everything to BE ordered (like my closet or under the bed might be messy, and it will bug me, but not cause me anxiety because I can shut the door). Sometimes I can mitigate my anxiety by throwing a blanket or something over the laundry etc. in order to hide the clutter/disorder so Jared and I can watch a movie, but that doesn’t work for other things like dishes. Disorder makes me feel dirty, like when you’ve been camping for days without a shower.
Broken or inefficient equipment – trying to nurse along a broken appliance or something that only works intermittently makes me agitated because I’m so busy that I don’t have time to be messing with it. I would prefer to stop wasting time and just go buy something that does what I need it to do. Inefficiency drives me CRAZY.
Items going missing – I get very agitated when I can’t find something I need, especially if I put it away, and it’s not where I left it. My family CONSTANTLY takes or borrows my things without asking, then they do not care for them well, and they also don’t return them when they’re done – or sometimes they just lose them. Again, I get very stressed when I have to go looking for things because I am so short on time.
Wasted time – people who waste my time drive me crazy. I hate standing in lines at the store, or when I get a super slow checker, or when people want to constantly stop me and chat. I don’t have time to chat. I am always on the clock. Barriers to getting all my responsibilities accomplished make me very anxious.
Interactions with Others:
A loved one being disappointed or upset with anything I’ve done, haven’t done, or didn’t do to his liking (feel shame)
Children fighting or arguing – often I will avoid serious issues with the kids in order to avoid the conflict. Becoming a workaholic to escape the pressures at home.
Walking into public areas (criticism minefield)
Being confronted by anyone who is angry or upset, via any medium (email, text, FB, phone, face to face) – family, friends, strangers, clients, etc. Avoidance of medium where this may occur – I developed an aversion to my voice mail and no longer check it, for example. Very difficult time talking to upset clients; may overreact to their objections in the moment, or may be able to hold it together (sort of) but then will be upset for days afterward.
General fear of public places as I may be recognized by others and scrutinized or “watched.” Avoid going to public places alone if at all possible.
Avoid driving, because I’m afraid of making mistakes (like being in the wrong lane while driving, etc.) that cause others to react negatively
Afraid of men following me around, hitting on me, etc. – especially if they force a conversation
Fear of interactions with anyone that appears to be invading my personal space, aggressive in any way OR overly friendly
Desire to “hide” in plain sight – use makeup to disguise my true face AND my body, and feel that my real appearance is unworthy of public display
Fear of being “caught” without makeup on/hair done – feeling of violation and shame when this occurs – fear of exposure
Fear of appearing overweight
HATE being in public if I feel unattractive. I’m always late because I can never fix myself up ENOUGH to be on time anywhere. I never feel confident enough to force myself out the door on time. This means it take me an inordinate amount of time to get ready for anything. I have even tattooed on my eyeliner and eyebrows in the hopes of speeding up my routine but it hasn’t helped
Fear of looking older/decline of appearance – terrified by signs of aging. Seeing the changes in my face makes me feel out of control and sometimes I can’t recognize my own face anymore when I look in the mirror
Hypervigilance with online photos/images of myself – usually photoshop all my own photos to make myself look better before posting, and take control of the photography at events because I enjoy it, but also so that other people don’t have access to unflattering photos of me and can’t post them online
Fear of doing something incorrectly in front of other people, especially when I’m expected to do something well (afraid to take ballet classes, etc.)
Any situation where I am forced to do things I’m not good at in front of others (PE in school, math on the blackboard, etc.)
Feeling Confused or Intellectually Inadequate
Doing new things on my own when I don’t know the protocol or don’t have someone to explain things to me (paying bus fare, going to the gym and not knowing or remembering how to use a machine, driving a stick shift, using a slot machine for the first time, etc)
Confusion when: running into people I don’t recognize, and having to make conversation like I know them; running into people I should know, but don’t recognize (face blindness); running into people out of context and getting confused
Trying to put something together or assemble things from instructions (I try but it always turns out like crap), or using a manual to learn technical things (videos are better)
Reading, learning, or understanding technical material: feelings of being overwhelmed and frustrated when dealing with taxes, finances, electrical/mechanical issues, etc. and feeling ashamed when I try but can’t figure things out
Feeling innately broken and inadequate when I can’t understand things the way other people do (Ie. Mormonism) and a tenacious need to push myself to the point of exhaustion in order to achieve comprehension. Constant internal dialogue and questioning things I don’t understand – discussing, diagramming and analyzing puzzling over interactions with others
Trying to navigate to somewhere I’ve never been on my own (even if I’m just walking through the mall)
Driving somewhere new, even when I have the directions and have planned my route
Driving in traffic – the noise/chaos makes me feel claustrophobic and triggers panic attacks
Driving in road construction: I become very confused when a route changes or detours. I have trouble driving with any kind of glare in my eyes, and have no depth perception when the glare is intense. Often mistake close objects for far, far objects for close, etc. or can’t tell which way to go if there are reflective cones in the road
Parking, or finding parking if I don’t know where it is in relation to the location I’m going to
Car problems, because I know nothing about cars and can’t understand them anyway. Having a breakdown or losing control of my vehicle in any way (flat tire, etc) – anything I’m helpless to fix
Trying to get back to places I’ve already been, but I can’t remember the route (this happens a lot, even with places I’ve been to many times)
Having to stop and get directions from someone I don’t know
Travelling without a cell phone, or in an area that doesn’t have cell service
The news, a violent movie, crime shows, horror movies, etc. can bother me for days so I try to avoid them if at all possible.
Hearing OR seeing or even hearing about an act of violence or even a violent accident can haunt me forever.
Violence that is unreal (like in a movie that is purely fiction) is a little more palatable, because I can tell myself it’s just drama. Even then, rape scenes or scenes where children are hurt or scared are IMPOSSIBLE for me to watch without a panic attack and I will have to leave the room and cover my ears.
Seeing anyone weak or helpless in danger is excruciating.
Thoughts of the end of the world, the last days, etc. have given me anxiety and nightmares since I was a little child. Hearing about it at church, when I used to go, became over time an immediate trigger for a panic attack, to the point that just entering the parking lot would send me into a tailspin requiring medication.