It feels like almost anything can trigger it – a familiar sound, an image flash, seeing a car that reminds you of THE person that reminds you of what happened, of IT.
Anyone who has experienced trauma likely knows this familiar, dreaded experience.
Flashbacks can freeze you in place, terrified, unable to move.
Your brain immediately goes into overdrive – a flood of painful emotions, “what ifs”, and self-critical bludgeoning.
“Will this ever stop?”
Unfortunately, your body and mind work against you getting unstuck from this whirlpool of agony.
Trauma takes a normal brain/body process designed to help you avoid pain and hijacks it, causing a
seemingly unending cycle of avoidance and psychic pain.
Our human brains are adaptive – we are able to identify images, feelings, sounds, sights that have gone
together with pain and make a story of them. We are more advanced than the animal, who goes to a
pool of water and drinks, and after narrowly avoiding being eaten by an alligator, can recover from
terror to find calm quickly, and resumes drinking at the very same pool.
No, we advanced creatures have the ability to tell a story – “when I last drank I almost died” – and so we
avoid the pool. This brain process helps us survive longer and live more enriching lives. However, when
trauma occurs, the story can change in our minds from “that pool” to “any pool”, resulting in avoidance
of any body of water, anywhere. Even the thought of a pool of water can trigger that same fear
response, resulting in safety, but also misery, because life gets smaller and smaller, more insulated and
isolated. The pain from the trauma boxes us in, adding suffering and agony to our pain.
Is there a way out?
Yes. To begin, let me first tell you a story. Imagine I’m terrified of jumping off a diving board into
a pool. I truly fear I will die. Even touching the ladder makes me quake in fear, rooting my feet to the
ground. But if I know how to swim, and there is water in the pool, and I want my fear to change, I must
face it and go through it. I can transform my fear into something else, if I face it. It helps if I have a
patient, trusted guide, encouraging me, believing in me, helping me contain my fear and overtake it.
And then I jump, and jump, and jump, until my terror transforms.
We often find ways to adapt to our current pain and resign to living in it. We often choose
to blunt our pain with alcohol, self-injury, or other forms of self-destruction. We would rather face the
known pain instead of walking into unknown suffering that awaits us on a different path.
Our minds can create a catastrophic story of what that pain would be like – and when we approach it
our fears feel confirmed. Facing the pain and going through feels terrifying. If my feared pain is worse
than my current pain, I know I won’t survive.
This way of thinking forgets two vital elements.
First, when traversing the path through trauma, there is HOPE. Sure, risk taking means things could get worse. But surely if you keep things as they are, you also risk remaining stuck in your current pain and suffering for the rest of your life. You take a risk either way. Facing and going through the pain runs the risk of feeling overwhelmingly intense, but also carries the hope of potentially transforming the pain into something new and manageable, something meaningful, even something good.
Second, you can maximize this hope by facing your pain with someone.
Going through with a trusted guide provides a borrowed sense of courage, a sense of grounding and
safety, and a hope for change. Further, the therapy experience itself is transformational – by going
through pain with another person, you can learn that you are not alone and that you can engage in
meaningful and healthy relationships. This type of change not only helps you, but can ripple out to the
world around you. Just as the pain of trauma propagates internally and externally – so too does the
healing of trauma. When two people have the courage to face the pain, the beauty from transformed
trauma can bring life to you and the world around you.
Panic is not a slide – that terribly high, incredibly steep slide that once you start slipping there’s no
stopping you from plummeting.
No, panic is not a slide, it is more like a fire.
All it can take is a single spark to get panic started.
“What if I (insert potential worry or catastrophe here)”.
Or perhaps you feel light-headed and your thoughts go into overdrive. You’re instantly afraid that
another panic attack is coming.
These type of thoughts and feelings can spark fear, panic, and anxiety. However, when most people I
work with talk about their symptoms of panic, they describe it like a SLIDE.
Except the slide they fear isn’t the kiddie slide with easy bumps and drops and a soft landing. The
“panic” slide is more like a 200 foot drop that ends in a black hole of agony. Once you feel you’re taking
the slightest move downward, your body and mind go into overdrive, with legs and hands gripping the
sides, terrified that you won’t make it back to the top.
The problem with this view is that simply adds fuel to the fire of panic. Your brain starts looking for any
potential signs of anxiety, spots them, and then turns up the heat, sounding alarms and sending your
body into a frenzy.
The problem with this view is that the only way not to have panic is to avoid signs of anxiety. This can
lead to your life feeling smaller and smaller. What once was an easy task (going to the grocery store),
can become a terrible fear (“What if I start to have a panic attack at the store and everyone sees me
The problem with this view is that a symptom of every-day life – stress – a feeling necessary for helping
you solve problems, understanding your limits, and identifying changes you want to make – can become
a signal for panic. That lightheadedness you feel because you haven’t eaten enough can trigger panic.
Stress about an upcoming date can trigger panic. A single “what if” can spark a bonfire of panic.
Panic is like a fire, not a slide.
You need multiple ingredients to get a fire going: firewood, oxygen, a dry environment, and a spark.
Once a fire starts, it builds the more you add fuel to it and maintain oxygen flow. It slowly goes out as
you remove the necessary elements.
The spark can be anything – a thought, a physical feeling, a reasonable anxiety or stressor. Your
thoughts, a churning mass of tinder, provide excellent fuel to keep the fire going. The pressures of life –
job worries, relationship difficulties, traumatic experiences – can represent the dry environment that
allows the fire to burn more quickly. Your body represents the oxygen – facilitating the burn as you
focus and heighten tension in your muscles, quicken your breath, and lose control.
Gaining control over panic does take some time and some work. Good psychotherapy arms you with
tools to manage your thoughts in a way that leads to confidence and strength, not fear and avoidance.
You can learn to be in charge of your body and live in confidence and in freedom.
I am a licensed psychologist practicing in Denver, CO.