PTSD and anxiety: Does one cause the other? This question popped up recently when I was speaking with someone who has severe panic attacks, which are “debilitating” and require inpatient care.  As this individual was sharing about their experiences, they told me that when they think about how much time they’ve spent seeking treatment and recovering, it causes both anxiety and PTSD symptoms

I’m a career therapist with many years of experience treating people with stand-alone anxiety, with no overt PTSD symptoms—I had not considered that reflecting back on anxiety could be traumatizing and anxiety-provoking in itself. For this person and so many others, there’s an unclear line between the two: anxiety and PTSD. Many people (including this particular individual) experience:

  • body memory
  • flashbacks
  • tremors

It’s like the very experience is happening all over again. Fortunately, reminding themselves, “I am here and now, not there and then,” helped this individual and can prove to help others, too.

This person is also determined to take on challenges—and resilience is one of their superpowers. They were aware that things happen, unbidden at times and all they can really do is ride it out, sometimes treading water, until things calm down again. Having solid support from loved ones as well as professionals proves to keep them afloat.

Although it might be hard to acknowledge a benefit of anxiety or trauma, this person and others are grateful for the lessons they have learned as a result. Keep in mind: no one is sugar-coating it, nor are they denying the pain. Instead, they’re deciding to face what comes their way and make the best of it. Ironically, the one certainty of life is uncertainty. A catch-22, since anxiety thrives on unpredictability.

Strengths-Focused Approach to Trauma Recovery

Positive psychology offers a strengths-focused approach for trauma recovery, which was pioneered by psychologist Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. One important concept is post-traumatic growth, which reflects counterintuitive responses to awful conditions. The 21-item Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory examines responses to painful event in five areas:

  1. Connecting with others
  2. New possibilities or opportunities
  3. Personal strength
  4. Spiritual change
  5. Appreciation for and gratitude in life

When survivors view themselves in that light, rather than as victims who have no choices, healing is much more likely. Take Michele Rosenthal, for example: an award-winning blogger, award-nominated author, workshop leader and certified professional coach. She is also a trauma survivor who struggled with PTSD for over 25 years. She calls herself Chief Hope Officer (CHO) of Your Life After Trauma, LLC.

Michele’s trauma is Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis Syndrome (TENS), which she describes as “a freak allergy to a medication that turned me into a full-body burn victim almost overnight.” This horror was followed by a series of harmful/disheartening physiological and psychological conditions. It took years of determination to recover that led her to be symptom free and now she guides others to overcome their own trauma-trials. What helped her see her way clear to the other side of suffering is what she refers to as a “healing rampage.” In summary, she prioritized 4 c’s: she stayed committed, consistent, creative, and complex. These are important resiliency building skills regardless of diagnosis or symptomology, whether it falls under the umbrella of anxiety or PTSD.

A Plan for Centering Yourself and Relieving Symptoms

If you are experiencing anxiety and PTSD symptoms (or just one or the other) you can learn relaxation and breathing techniques to center yourself in the here and now. Here are a few helpful techniques: 

  • Do grounding exercises like walking barefoot on the grass.
  • Avoid places or things that may overtly trigger reaction when you need a break.
  • Have an exit plan ready for if you get triggered
  • Breathe in relaxing aromas, such as lavender or chamomile. 
  • Listen to soul-soothing sounds and music.
  • Seek support from family and friends, or other trusted loved ones.
  • Work with a mental health professional.

Whatever you do, stay committed to living a happy, healthy life, regardless of your anxiety or trauma.