Dublin Counsellor Blog

When Anxiety becomes Trauma

When anxiety becomes trauma: Anxiety is a corresponding response to levels of external danger. The more threatening the situation, the higher the anxiety gets and vice versa.

When an experience is overwhelming, it becomes too big to process on the spot. We then have to shut down to just survive it.

Our body has a built-in mechanism that kicks in. Psychotherapists call it dissociation. It works on the same principle as an electricity circuit. When there is too much electricity in the circuit, a trip switch goes to shut off the system to protect it from being destroyed.

‘Trip switch’?

So, when we are in an overwhelming situation, our anxiety does not keep going up, we actually go calm because the ‘trip switch’ has gone off. But what is actually happening?

In our bodies, we have moved from the balanced fight and flight mode into freeze or ‘tonic immobility’. An extreme example of this is fainting. Something is just too much and we shut down completely.

The brain is also part of our nervous system and it freezes too. It does this in the form of a splitting of awareness. This is the mind’s attempt to flee when fight/flight is not possible.

But while this ‘trip switch’ protects us at that moment, the experience remains unprocessed and continues to live in our bodies. Signs of this are foot tapping, pale skin and an inability to cry.

It also lives in our minds and appears in the form of flashbacks. Thus, the experience returns to us over and over again. Amnesia is usually a response to a traumatic episode, it has to be forcefully forgotten.

When anxiety becomes trauma

A trauma psychotherapist will be aware of this and help a client process both the experience in their body and mind and help restore a more natural balance.

For a wider description of how psychotherapy works, and to see my own availability for psychotherapy, check out:

Thomas Larkin