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My Adult Anxiety: A Bodysuit Leftover from Childhood Trauma

Anxious woman in the workplace.

“Nothing diminishes anxiety faster than action.”

–Walter Anderson

What is Anxiety?

Merriam-Webster defines anxiety as an apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness, usually over impending or anticipated ill. Anxiety is a normal human reaction to stressful situations. But those fears and worries are not temporary for people with anxiety disorders. Instead, their anxiety persists and can even get worse over time.1

What is a Childhood Traumatic Event?

Childhood trauma is a scary, dangerous, violent, or life-threatening event that happens to a child 0-18 years of age.2 Childhood traumatic events are incidents where the child perceives she is in danger of significant injury or death. An event that may be traumatic for one child may not be for another.

My Childhood Traumatic Event

Much to my mother’s dismay, I was not in the top reading group when I was in the first grade. Instead, I was in the middle reading group—The Busy Bees—sandwiched between the best readers at the top and the slow students at the bottom.

To improve my reading skills, Mrs. Irving, my teacher, suggested to my mother that I practice reading at home. So, every day after school, while the other kids played outside, I anxiously sat at the dining room table, hunched over a school reader. I read haltingly until I came across a word I didn’t recognize. Whenever I got stuck, Mom immediately commanded, “Sound it out.”

Sitting at the dining room table reading one afternoon while Mom ironed, I stumbled twice on the same word. And here it was again, for the third time. And again, I forgot the word.

“Sound it out! You’ve had this word several times recently,” Mom snapped.

Staring at the word, I slowly sounded out each letter. “whu-huh-igh-tuh-euh”

“Again,” she commanded.

“whu-huh-igh-tuh-euh”

“Sound out each letter, Carol Ann,” Mom said impatiently.

Nervously, I sounded out the word three more times at ever-increasing speeds.

“whu-huh-igh-tuh-euh”

“whu-huh-igh-tuh-euh”

“whu-huh-igh-tuh-euh”

Feeling frustrated, I had no idea what the word was because it did not sound recognizable. In an instant, Mom grabbed my right hand and pressed the tip of the hot iron directly on the back of my hand in the webbed area where the thumb meets the forefinger.

“I’ll teach you to remember that word!” she hissed.

“Owwwwww!” I cried, quickly snatching my hand away. The point of the iron left a white imprint on my hand, shaped like the bow of a boat.

“The word is ‘WHITE!’” my mother shouted in exasperation.

My Childhood Anxiety

During my 25-year technical writing career as an adult in a constantly changing environment, anxiety was like a second skin to me. It encased me like a tight-fitting bodysuit. I’d worn different weights of this suit for so long that when it finally came off decades later after healing from childhood anxiety, I felt naked but free.

My anxiety started as a young child, around five years of age. As soon as I was fully awake every morning, I needed to discern my mother’s unpredictable mood. Her breakfast-cooking state of mind determined how my day started. Was she in a neutral state while scrambling my eggs, or could I hear her voice’s tenseness hinting at an underlying, unknown-to-me issue?

If she was in a bad mood or angry, I was on guard and either minimized my contact with her or avoided her if possible. It was paramount that I read her mood quickly so I knew whether I was dealing with Neutral Mother or Mean Mother.

Unpredictable Environments

Growing up in an unpredictable environment is one of the most influential factors in the development of adult anxiety disorders, including Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which I was diagnosed with as an adult.3 Examples of unpredictable parental behavior include:

  • Parents who may be present one day or absent the next
  • Parents who may be loving one day or angry and violent the next
  • Parents who may be clean and sober sometimes or under the influence of drugs or alcohol at other times
  • Parents who don’t serve regular meals or don’t routinely take their kids to doctor and dental appointments.

Childhood Trauma as a Predisposing Factor for Adult Anxiety

The following childhood traumas predispose the formation of anxiety disorders in adulthood:

  • Emotional abuse (bullying, insulting, humiliating)
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Parental substance abuse
  • Parental mental illness
  • Emotional neglect or lack of a nurturing environment
  • Abandonment
  • Accidents, serious medical conditions, or medical procedures
  • Separation from a parent or caregiver

Children who grow up with the preceding traumas will likely be impacted as adults.

Note: Not everyone who experiences childhood abuse will develop anxiety as an adult. Similarly, not every adult who lives with anxiety experienced childhood trauma.

Children’s reactions to a traumatic event can have lasting effects on their daily functioning, including changes in a child’s mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual health. Impacted children may become hyper-vigilant in scanning their environment for danger and hyper-sensitive in reading the actions and reactions of their parent’s moods so they can protect themselves. As an adult, they may persist with this behavior of overanalyzing other people’s reactions, which may predispose them to an anxiety disorder. That is what happened to me.

What is an Emotional Trigger?

An emotional trigger is a person, place, thing, or situation that elicits an intense or unexpected emotional response or causes an individual to relive past trauma. Any sensory stimulus can be a potential trigger.4

Common emotional triggers include:

  • Past trauma
  • Negative memories
  • Fear
  • Stressful situations
  • Relationship issues
  • Loss or grief
  • Change

My Adult Anxiety

My mother burning my hand with the iron because I couldn’t recall a specific word I’d run across previously when reading my schoolbook was the single most devastating incident of my childhood. One that Honey, my inner child, never understood. She was extremely hurt and bewildered. My adult self was angry. This childhood traumatic event stayed with me throughout my working career. Its influence became evident when I was employed as a technical writer for a software developer in Silicon Valley. In that fast-moving environment, I was expected to quickly understand technical information conveyed by Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and translate it into easy-to-understand text for non-technical financial customers.

My Emotional Trigger

When meeting with SMEs I didn’t know or with whom I had not developed a close working relationship, I always felt pressured to understand the material quickly. Of course, instant comprehension did not always happen. I was emotionally triggered when misunderstanding the software’s functionality was coupled with an impatient SME. That sinking feeling of helplessness and bewilderment flooded my mind. I became desperate to “get it.” My trigger symptoms included anxiety, an elevated heartbeat, sweating, and a change in breathing, which included inhaling deeply through my nose as if I could not get enough oxygen.

Before I could cope with my emotional trigger, I first had to identify the triggering scenario and link it back to the childhood trauma. Then, I understood why it occurred. Emotional triggers are a reaction to past trauma. As such, there is no cure for them, per se. Learning to manage my emotional response to the triggering scenario was up to me. If I wanted to remain in my technical writing position, I needed to learn a coping mechanism since the job entailed interviewing different SMEs regularly.

Coping with My Trigger

After identifying the origin of my emotional trigger, I considered the action steps I could take to lessen or eliminate the emotional and corresponding physical reactions. After careful thought, I developed the following short and long-term strategies:

Short-term:

  • Develop rapport with the SME.
  • Remind myself that I can ask intelligent questions, comprehend the functionality, and write the answers.
  • Act and speak confidently, even if I don’t feel that way.
  • Stop. Close my eyes and take a deep breath to slow down my thoughts so I can focus. I learned to speed up by slowing down.
  • Break up the amount of material to cover in a SME session into manageable chunks.
  • Ask the SME to slow down the demo or explanation when I am unclear.
  • Ask the SME to repeat what is unclear to me and ask clarifying questions until it becomes clear.
  • Ask the SME to record the digital meeting.
  • Record on paper what the SME says, even if it’s unclear to me at the time of recording.
  • Confirm what the SME says using the applicable software to reinforce my comprehension.

Long-term:

  • Develop a close working relationship with the SME, so I view him as a personality with pluses and minuses and not as a scary stranger.

Conclusion

It’s not always easy or even possible to leave childhood trauma in the past. If you are an adult who has experienced childhood abuse, you may find the past abuse influencing your adult life in the form of anxiety. If this occurs, you can take steps to manage stress by engaging in therapy, using medication, engaging with support groups, and educating yourself about the disorder.

Linking adult anxiety scenarios back to childhood trauma aids in understanding the root causes of your anxiety. Then, you can develop practical steps to mitigate or eliminate the stress. If you educate yourself about anxiety, formulate strategies to deal with it, and practice your strategic steps with patience, you can learn to live an anxiety-free life!

References

1. “Dealing with Anxiety from Childhood Abuse.” Endcan.org, 14, September 2021. https://endcan.org/2021/09/14/dealing-with-anxiety-from-childhood-abuse

2. “What is Child Trauma?” Center for Child Trauma Assessment and Service Planning. Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. https://cctasi.northwestern.edu/child-trauma/

3. Binensztok, Ph.D., LMHC, NCC, Vassilia. “How Childhood Trauma Relates to Present-Day Anxiety and Panic.” Junocounseling.com, 15, July 2020. https://www.junocounseling.com/post/how-childhood-trauma-relates-to-present-day-anxiety-and-panic

4. Cooks-Campbell, Allaya. “Triggered? Learn what emotional triggers are and how to deal with them.” BetterUp, 28, November 2023. https://www.betterup.com/blog/triggers

Additional Reading

  1. Tschampa, PharmD, LCPC, CADC, C-IAYT, BCC, Jean M. “Can Childhood Trauma Cause Anxiety? Yes and Here’s Why.” Life-care-wellness.com, 26, October 2019. https://life-care-wellness.com/can-childhood-trauma-cause-anxiety
  2. Bourne, Ph.D., Edmund J. The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. Seventh Edition. 1, May 2020. Amazon.com. https://www.amazon.com/Anxiety-Phobia-Workbook-Edmund-Bourne/dp/1684034833/ref=sr_1_1_sspa?crid=138GXYK7Z6XV3&keywords=anxiety+book&qid=1701218531&s=books&sprefix=anxiety%2Cstripbooks%2C135&sr=1-1-spons&sp_csd=d2lkZ2V0TmFtZT1zcF9hdGY&psc=1

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