The Relationship Between Anxiety & Trauma

Do you have a history of trauma and struggle with anxiety? Do you feel like both experiences reinforce one another? If so, you’re not alone. 

Struggling with both anxiety and trauma can be downright exhausting, frustrating, and debilitating. However, it is possible to treat these conditions. Let’s get into what you need to know.

How Does Trauma Impact The Brain? 

Trauma isn’t just a distressing experience that results in you feeling depressed, anxious, or numb. Neuroscience research shows that trauma can profoundly affect brain activity. Stress impacts the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex regions. 

The amygdala is the part of the brain associated with emotional processing. It can shape emotions and behavior, and its most important role is processing fear. The hippocampus shapes memory. However, it also regulates functions related to learning, motivation, and emotion. Finally, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for more complex cognitive behaviors. These include sensory perception, problem-solving, and decision-making. 

Trauma also affects neurochemical systems. When the body is overwhelmed with stress, it releases excess cortisol and norepinephrine. Over time, these hormones can result in physical complications like high blood pressure, headaches, and fatigue.

What Is Post-traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a clinical anxiety disorder that results from experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event. Such events can include natural disasters, physical or sexual assault, car accidents, war, and medical diagnoses. 

As mentioned, trauma fundamentally changes brain activity. Likewise, almost everyone experiences disturbances after a trauma. It’s normal to feel more anxious or depressed in those initial days or weeks. It’s also reasonable to feel a sense of numbness or apathy. 

However, some people experience anxiety symptoms that worsen or persist over time. These symptoms may include:

  • Intrusive thoughts related to the trauma
  • Depressed mood
  • Disproportionate guilt over what happened
  • Hyperarousal 
  • Avoidance behaviors
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks

PTSD can make daily functioning feel incredibly challenging. You may feel distracted at work or in school. You may find yourself isolating or distancing yourself from your loved ones. The recurring thoughts and feelings can impact how you feel about yourself and the world around you.

Can Anxiety Cause Trauma? 

Everyone responds to trauma differently. People with anxiety may be more predisposed to emotional complications resulting from trauma.

At times, anxiety may trigger traumatic situations. For example, you may experience a panic attack in a public place. Perhaps you felt like you were suffocating or dying, and nobody came to help you. That experience can be traumatic. It can result in you feeling scared of future panic attacks, which can trigger panic disorder.

Moreover, you may have a phobia of spiders. If you then get a spider bite that requires hospitalization, that event may feel incredibly traumatic. The phobia itself doesn’t cause the trauma. However, the phobia could have undoubtedly impacted how your brain contextualized the experience.

Treating Anxiety and Trauma: Can You Tackle Both At The Same Time?

When people seek professional help, they often focus on the most pressing issue. This mentality makes sense. Who doesn’t want to experience immediate relief?

That said, anxiety and trauma reinforce one another. Treating one set of symptoms without addressing the other can often backfire. You need comprehensive care that focuses on coping skills, stress management, and changing negative thoughts.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT focuses on changing negative thoughts and adopting a more realistic and adaptive mindset. Someone with a history of trauma and anxiety may experience cognitive distortions that include:

  • The world is unsafe.
  • I am never going to feel better.
  • People are dangerous.
  • Bad things will continue to happen.
  • I am broken.

These thoughts can be incredibly destructive and debilitating. They can maintain intense feelings of sadness, worry, guilt, and shame. They can also trigger unwanted behaviors like substance use, isolation, overeating, and working too much. 

CBT aims to raise awareness of this vicious cycle. Your therapist will work with you to develop healthier ways of thinking. They will also teach you productive coping skills to manage negative thoughts when they do arise.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

Similar to CBT, DBT also focuses on reframing negative thoughts and increasing distress tolerance skills. DBT also integrates skills related to mindfulness and emotional regulation.

DBT can help people move away from extreme thinking. It focuses on finding and harnessing acceptance for your life circumstances. This therapy modality can be beneficial for people struggling with anxiety and trauma.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR is a treatment specifically designed to reduce the distress associated with traumatic memories. Therapists engage in directed bilateral stimulations while clients share their experiences.

Over time, EMDR can help you shift both your thoughts and feelings. Rather than feeling overwhelmed or debilitated by trauma, you can cultivate a sense of resilience. You can also even feel a sense of empowerment and transformation. Inadvertently, this process can also help reduce some of the intensity associated with anxiety symptoms. 


Pharmacological treatment can help reduce anxiety symptoms. There are numerous options available, but everyone responds to medication differently. It’s important to consult with your doctor about the risks and benefits.

Medication alone is rarely sufficient in providing comprehensive treatment. Most people benefit from a combination of medication with therapy, integrative coping skills, or other holistic methods.

Final Thoughts

Anxiety and trauma can go hand-in-hand. Your anxiety may exacerbate your response to trauma. Subsequently, a history of trauma can heighten your sense of anxiety. 

Treatment and recovery are possible. You can learn to live a fulfilling life despite your conditions. Moreover, you can learn to build confidence and find resilience, even if your circumstances feel hopeless. 

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