A Disconcerting Experience
A few weeks ago, I had a weird experience. I was out all day—at work, at dinner, at coffee with a friend—and when I finally got home I could tell I was off. Really off. My mind was spinning and I couldn’t calm down. I felt disoriented.
After I gave up trying to study, I went to bed, hoping that when I woke up I’d be feeling normal again. But in the middle of the night I woke up screaming. I had dreamed about my my sister. In my dream, we were together in a restaurant in Dallas. The restaurant was crowded with gun-toting cowboys. It reminded me of a place where I used to work. I was feeling threatened and I tried to talk her into leaving the room. But she didn’t want to leave. As I walked out the door, I heard a gunshot. I turned around and I saw her body lying on the ground. That’s when I woke up screaming.
The next morning in Geology class I noticed my body shaking. And that’s when I realized what was happening. Something had happened the day before to trigger my anxiety. It was a small thing. I hadn’t consciously recognized it when it happened, but my body was responding.
Naming My Triggers and Responses
Since I was too distracted to pay attention to my professor, I opened my sketchbook and at the top of a new page I wrote, “Anxiety Triggers and Responses.” Under “Triggers,” I made a list of all the things related to secondary trauma that have triggered physical anxiety responses for me in the past.
- walking under the train tracks
- people who j-walk in front of my car
- talking with someone who speaks in an excessively self-depreciating manner
- that helpless feeling I get when I’m concerned for someone’s mental health
- the word “suicide”
Next I made a list of my subconscious and conscious responses.
- nightmares about someone dying
- distraction, difficulty focusing
That last item on my list fascinated me. It’s the only one I have direct control over. Mistrust is the story I tell myself about what is happening to me. It’s the story where I will always have to be the strong one because no one else is. I can only rely on myself. I have to fight this story because it’s not true. But the other things—the shaking, the nightmares—those just happen to me and I can’t do anything to fix them.
At the bottom of the page where I had made my list, I wrote “so what?”
I thought: Ok. Sometimes I run into something that makes me anxious. It’s nobody’s fault. And I can’t stop shaking. What do I do?
So I turned the page and started a new list. On this page, I wrote “My Plan.”
Before I tell you what I wrote, I’m going to tell you what I didn’t write. Here’s what I didn’t write: avoid the triggers. You see, I could restructure my life to avoid encountering triggers. I could never walk under the train tracks–logistically challenging, but possible. I could warn people not to upset me by talking about certain subjects or behaving in particular ways. But if I did that, I would be allowing fear to control me and I would be using my fear to control another person. That’s not fair to anyone.
Since that approach is a no-go, I tried to imagine what my counselor Pat would say about my list instead. I half-listened to my geology professor making a point about about groundwater contamination. But mostly I didn’t listen and instead wrote:
1. Name it.
The first time I talked to Pat, he listened as I described how I felt when I walked under the train tracks. Then he named my experience. He called it secondary trauma and he told me it was normal. For me, naming was a huge step toward healing.
When I had scary experiences, I felt like a chronically ill but undiagnosed patient. I didn’t know why I was sick or how long it would last or what to do next. I just knew I was scared. Naming is knowing. And knowing makes all the difference.
So when I start to recognize that I’m shaking and distracted, I want to name what is happening. It’s anxiety. It’s linked to trauma. It’s normal.
2) Talk to God.
I know that’s what Pat would tell me to do next. He would say, tell God, “I’m feeling anxious right now. My body is doing things that I don’t want it to do. I can’t fix my body, but I can tell my mind the truth. And this is the truth: I am safe. You’ve got me in your arms.” While I am praying, I like to think about the icon where Christ carries the lamb safely on his shoulders. I know that I’m carried just like that lamb. My body might be freaking out, but I know that I’m safe and so is everyone who I love.
I’m feeling better today. The whole experience caught me off guard. I thought I was over the anxiety thing. I hadn’t even noticed the trigger when it happened. I learned that I’m still vulnerable, but by God’s grace, I will not allow this vulnerability to dictate my actions.