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Breaking the uncertainty-anxiety pattern

We live with a lot of uncertainty, and if it is too strong, we lose trust in our ability to control our lives.

Trauma

Trauma is something that has damaged us in some way, either physically or emotionally, but it can trigger a more enduring emotional pattern that leads to anxiety.

Trauma can be from a single dramatic incident, such as an assault or serious accident, or it can be from a series of actions, such as sexual or emotional abuse. The consequences of these are typically being/feeling debilitated, which may take some time to overcome.

However, it is the feeling of lack of control over our lives and wellbeing that can have long-lasting effects, and undermine our trust in ourselves. That is a separate issue from dealing with the direct effects of the triggering trauma.

With a sense of loss of control comes the doubt that what we expected out of life will happen, and that leads to a lack of trust, whether that be in people, institutions or even our idea of God. It is a form of shock, and it strikes deep into our being, making us feel unsettled and anxious.

The more uncertain life seems, the more the anxiety manifests, resulting in a pattern where uncertainty leads to anxiety, rather than the desired outcome. If strong, the anxiety can be more debilitating than the effects of the triggering trauma.

Becoming anxious

Overcoming trauma is not just dealing with its direct effects, but understanding its consequential affects upon our sense of feeling safe.

The first activities post-trauma are overcoming the direct physical and emotional effects. That can soak up a lot of time and provide something to focus upon while some healing takes place. However, it is when we start to get back to some sort of normal life that the deeper effects of the trauma start to manifest.

Typically, that will be a heightened sense of vulnerability at those times and places where we used to feel quite fine. That can be because those circumstances now remind us of the trauma, creating a sense of foreboding that is not warranted. If the feeling occurs often, the anxiety becomes locked in emotionally, creating a new disability. The anxiety comes because we no longer feel as safe as we felt before, in the current physical situation, or within ourselves. Trust has been lost because we feel we cannot control ourselves or our lives as before.

Behaviours

There are many behaviours that may indicate the anxiety needs to be addressed.

Of course, it would help if we never had any anxieties, but it is a part of life. The real issue is whether it is affecting our ability to be in control of our life, and not be unduly distracted. Anxiety can manifest at any of the levels of our personalities, but the central characteristic is that we will be trying to control some aspect of our life in a way that is inflexible and compulsive, as if it is imperative that it is accomplished.

The controlling behaviours for each level of our personality are:
#LevelBehaviour
1MentalAdopting rigid beliefs
2EmotionalSuppression of emotion
3PhysicalObsessive-compulsive disorder

The longer or more difficult to control the anxiety, the lower the attempt at control will be, so when we have the most difficulty we will tend to try to maintain a very particular arrangement of objects in our surroundings. If the circumstances are very difficult, we may repeatedly check that the items are still how we last left them.

If we have a milder case of anxiety, talking about how we feel and what we are thinking about at the time of these episodes may help us to start a healing process. A counsellor may help with this. However, if we have serious behaviour issues, we may need help from a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist to try to break the behaviour cycle so that it can be varied to allow rational discussion to take place.

Understanding self

A lot of activity after trauma is dealing with its immediate effects, typically involving physiotherapy or psychology to get back to some external view of normal functioning.

That goes a long way to bringing the reality of our new life front-and-centre. However, the deeper effects can be more elusive to deal with, and often come up at inopportune times, making it difficult for us to know how to handle them. Anxiety has its roots in our own thinking, so understanding how we think is the start to unraveling the causal process between our thinking and feeling anxious.

For mild cases, some form of meditation or contemplation may help us to bring some light to our thinking processes. For serious conditions, a professional, such as a clinical psychologist, may help with getting started, so that we are used to how to approach our own thinking processes and change them. A form of stock take of our attitudes and expectations is necessary. Without understanding some of what is driving our current mental and emotional states, we will not be able to pre-emptively deal with them.

Beliefs

We rely a lot upon our beliefs about ourselves and the world, and trauma can shake them to our core.

We grow up with a lot of beliefs programmed into us, framed by our parents, teachers, peers and media. For a long while, we can think they are pretty rock solid, until a trauma shakes them. That may be straight away, or it may happen over time, as the disparity between what we believe and what we experience seem to diverge.

If we are not used to periodically reality-checking our beliefs, and modifying them to suit our new experiences, we may make a radical decision to reject a whole set of beliefs we have grown up with, just because we don't trust them any more, but do not have the skills to determine those parts that are the real issue.

However, such rejection may result in us feeling cast adrift, floating aimlessly away from the apparent safety we had when we sheltered in those beliefs. That drifting can lead to more uncertainty and resulting anxiety. Some of our beliefs may have been unworthy of our trust, but we only need to change those that have proven to be at odds with reality. The other parts can stay, to help us maintain some balance while we re-establish some trust in ourselves and our new place in the world.

Expectations

Our beliefs set our expectations, so changes in beliefs will change what we expect, from ourselves and the world.

We deal with uncertainty by falling into the truth is only what I believe la-la land thinking, hoping that blocking out reality will save us from it. However, the only way to deal with reality is to embrace it, as it is the only way to be able to establish reliable outcomes. In dealing with uncertainty, especially about ourselves and our abilities, we have to see what we are capable of. We may challenge ourselves with something unrelated to our issue, hoping that some of the bravado we used to get through that will carry over into other parts of our lives.

Life, and the issues that are core to our dealing with it, are not that simple. We only make concrete gains when we take concrete steps to deal with the real issue. That will be challenging, but it can be staged so that we are not overwhelmed. Professional help may be needed with how to approach the issue, or deal with some parts of it.

As we deal with each step, we see that there is more certainty of the outcome, and that we can pull it off. That will change our emotional expectations from feeling anxious to a feeling a sense of accomplishment, leading to trust in ourselves. While we shouldn't overly model our lives upon others, we can learn from them, adapting their approaches to suit our circumstances. We don't have to make all our own mistakes, as evolution is a shared experience.

Lessons

Circumstances may provide a lot of hints about the course our life should take, but we have been fixated upon a course that we desire, and ignore those hints.

Sometimes trauma is about making sure we don't go down a course that is not where we are meant to go. Much of our lives is fairly linear, in that what we want, with directed effort, we can get. However, sometimes we are presented with choices that are radically different, with different sets of attitudes required to pursue each of them. Most of the time, we will choose the one that fits with how we see ourselves and the life we expect for ourselves. The choices force us to make conscious decisions about our lives, and mostly we will choose what is right for us.

At times the choice is about taking a new opportunity. That may be a temptation for some easy money, where it tests our resolve and ethics. Another time, it can be about expanding our horizons and sense of self into areas where we have never dared adventure. They can be a test of how ready we are to change, or a door to the next phase of our lives, through which we are meant to pass.

If they are the door to the next phase, repeatedly rejecting them may lead to circumstances that bring the current life phase to an abrupt close, in the form of a traumatic episode that forces the break. Unfortunately, the apparent wisdom of the event may only become apparent years after, because it is only then that we see how differently our lives worked out from the course we had been taking. It does highlight that we must really think about all opportunities presented to us, and extrapolate what sort of future they may bring, so that we can make the best choices for our future.

Path to self

Trauma often shakes our sense of self, and that can start a process of searching for what self really is.

The shock of not really knowing our real self sometimes leads us to find simple solutions, like retreating to a religion we grew up with, at least until we can come to terms with what has happened. That is not to say it is in any way wrong, but it may not shield from the broader ramifications of the challenge to our sense of self. At this point, the temptation might be to use the religion (including atheism) to try to block out the new realisations. Healing requires the acceptance and sublimation of experiences, so that they make sense in the narrative of our life.

That cannot be done by suppression of the thoughts and feelings that arise, though time may be required before we can face them. If they are meant to be delt with, they will find ways to intrude into our consciousness. It may help to ponder upon them as a thought exercise, where we look at them as an idea, separated from the emotional effects, so that their ramifications can be explored without our commitment to changing.

Or we may be perceiving that there is more to our life than our beliefs up until then allowed. After substantially getting over the effect of the trauma, we may begin to explore a new world of ideas and thoughts about the meaning of life and how we fit in it. The trauma was a wake up call, shaking us from a sleep of our own making. At one level it brings more uncertainty, but at another, it gives a widened sense of certainty about where we are headed, even if we cannot yet see the destination.

Opportunity

It may be a stretch to see the upside of trauma, but they are certainly an opportunity to live a different life to the one we may have been living before then.

How we deal with trauma defines our future life. Adapting to the changes required, while they may seem a form of punishment, may lead to a new life with new certainties, just because we remained in charge of the process. Making informed choices, and making the effort to follow through on those choices, reduces uncertainty, making for a future life with less things to be anxious about.

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