What Is The Difference & Relationship Between PTSD And Anxiety?

anxiety fight or flight response panic ptsd trauma Feb 27, 2021

I have had the privilege of connecting personally with so many of our awesome members. Many of you have shared your own experiences and asked some important questions. One question recently asked was “What is the difference and relationship between PTSD and Anxiety?”

Empowering Ourselves With Information

I am always struck by the fact that people are being diagnosed by their doctors or their psychiatrists and then don’t any clarification on what the diagnosis means or how it actually functions in their life. It is so disempowering. And scary.

As you all know, I really stand for empowering people and I believe that knowledge is power. So let’s get some information out there about these two diagnoses – how they are different and how they are related.

empower over anxiety

The Difference Between PTSD and Anxiety

I am going to try and keep this as simple as possible and describe both PTSD and anxiety and then look at how they are related.

So let’s start with post-traumatic stress disorder. As the name suggests, this is what happens in the aftermath  of a trauma. 

Now the DSM, which is our Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Illness and the “bible”(so to speak) of how we make diagnoses, would classify any trauma as being a “perceived threat to your life”.

So it doesn’t have to have been in reality. It just means that you must have felt like you were about to die. It also needs to include a sexual violation or a violation of your integrity. So, in short, that’s the definition of a “traumatic event”.

Now, I think is really important to know that every single person, no matter who you are, or where you come from. And no matter what level of resilience you have, you will experience a post-traumatic stress response after a traumatic event.

This is because, at the time of the trauma, there’s so much going on for you that it takes a while for your body to process through the experience.

What Happens In The Brain

brain and anxiety

So, let’s just understand a Little bit about what happens in the brain. If we can imagine our closed fist holding the thumb is our brain – Then our thumb is our limbic system – aka emotional brain. This is also the part of the brain that is responsible for the adrenaline or the “fight or flight” response.

 

Then we have the cortex, which are our fingers over the thumb and represent the outside of the brain. Now the two front fingers represent the  prefrontal cortex, which is our logical brain and is the part of the brain that is responsible for rational and logical thought.

All of our memories, no matter how they happen, get stored into the limbic system – our emotional brain. They get stored in the form of raw data. Basically they are just bits of images and emotions and pieces of information that go into the limbic system.

Now the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that takes all that information and makes sense of it. So that’s the part of the brain that takes the bits of raw data and then creates a story memory for you.

Now most importantly, the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system never play together. So if the limbic system is fired up, we’ve got no rational thoughts in the picture. In other words, when you are feeling really emotional its likely you’re not being very rational and vice versa.

How Trauma Responses Get Stuck

In the event of a trauma our limbic system is all fired up. We’re all systems ready to go – our fight-or-flight response is going. So all those memories are being stored in the limbic system, but there’s no prefrontal cortex to make sense of them. It’s only after the event that the prefrontal cortex has to do the work of making sense of it all.

As you can see, the brain needs some time after a traumatic event to make sense of it all. And this is when you might experience things like nightmares or flashbacks or vivid recollections of the trauma.

You might feel really guarded or hyper-vigilant, really tense. Some people feel really irritable. There’s always going to be anxiety. Maybe there’s even some struggle with sleep. All this is the post-traumatic  Stress response while the brain processes the memory and processes the experience.

And let’s not forget that the body needs to process the impact of the enormous adrenaline surge it has experienced. This response should release and resolve within about a month to six weeks.

If it doesn’t then the process has become stuck. And so now we have what we call a “disorder”, which is when the person continues to experience all those symptoms of a post-traumatic stress response on-going. This is largely because it has not resolved and made sense of the experience and memories of the trauma.

anxiety and trauma

The Role of Anxiety

Now anxiety does play a role in this and, when you understand what anxiety is all about, it makes perfect sense. Anxiety is a very normal, natural human response and It is the brain’s way of saying “Hey pay attention! It’s really important”.

You can imagine that if you have just had a traumatic experience, the brain is definitely going to say “Hey! Pay attention. And do not let this happen to you again, make sure that you know what’s going on in your environment that you keep yourself safe!”

This is the role of anxiety in post-traumatic stress disorder.

Anxiety On Its Own

Now anxiety can, of course, exist outside of PTSD and often it is triggered by an event that feels big and important. So anxiety pops up to get you to pay attention. Of course you will experience the symptoms of anxiety – which are many and varied. But if those symptoms and the anxiety itself is not resolved in the natural way, then the brain turns on itself and starts to see the anxiety symptoms themselves as the threat.

This is often because we don’t know that the symptoms we are experiencing actually mean anxiety. And when we don’t see the link, then we believe that something is physically wrong with us.  

Now the brain is saying “Hey! Pay attention to these symptoms – they are dangerous!” And more anxiety is released, which makes the symptoms worse. Here have this vicious cycle of anxiety about anxiety. The anxiety has become stuck.

pay attention trauma and anxiety

Disorders Are Processes That Have Become Stuck

With both of these conditions the processes simply became stuck. In the case of post-traumatic stress disorder the brain got stuck in its processing of the trauma memories.  In anxiety the brain gets stuck on processing the symptoms.

This is why empowerment and understanding what your diagnoses are and what they mean is so important to empower you.  Because when you understand what is happening then you know what you need to do going forward, right? For example, if you’ve got post-traumatic stress disorder then we need to help the brain to process those memories properly and resolve that process. And if you’ve got anxiety then we need to help the brain to stop focusing on the anxiety.

Summary

So in a nutshell, anxiety can exist on its own or form part of a more complex picture. Either way, when the processes become stuck we feel the impairment and become derailed. The aim then is always to empower ourselves, understand the experience and then shift the process back to a natural resolution so that we may become unstuck.

If you would like to learn more about anxiety, how it gets stuck and what you could do about it then join our FREE masterclass on 12th March 2021.

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