Anxiety, Trauma, and Healing

Anxiety, Trauma, and Healing

Humans have brains that are capable of complex thoughts about the future and the past. This gives us the ability to both plan, as well as fall into the abyss of regret. This brain has incredible powers to shape our reality, and language is one of the many tools we use to carve out meaning from the things that we experience throughout each day. Words can make us feel powerful, and they can make us feel weak, or even terrified. Sometimes words can free us from stuck places, and other times they can keep us stuck. Language, like everything else we experience, is understood in both individual and collective ways. Words have very little meaning, or value, unless they can be used to communicate with others. Our perspective on the world can impact the type of power that words have. For example, if you feel stressed out and can’t understand why, then a word like “anxiety” can be used as ladder of understanding to get out of a hole, or a gate that sits on the top of that hole. Anyone who has experienced anxiety can attest to the fact that it can be overwhelming, especially if one has little understanding of what is happening. However, being able to articulate what is going on can give us a foundation for moving out of it, or conversely it can make us feel more overwhelmed and terrified that it will never end. This is why perspective and belief are important. When we examine the words “placebo” and “nocebo” we find that a placebo connotes the activation of belief and nocebo the opposite. If we are given a placebo it often creates a healing effect because belief inspires the body to take action. A nocebo is the activation of doubt. If we cannot believe that something will work for us, it is much less likely to be successful. If one believes that they cannot move out of their anxiety, they are less likely to find a way out.

I grew up in a household with a mother who was extremely anxious. For example, if she put her hand under the water and it was hot, she screamed. I didn’t see myself as being as high strung as she was, but others reflected back to me that I was a bit too hyperactive or hyper-reactive, which feels connected. I learned to reign in that energy in order to fit in, but when we repress our feelings without fully integrating them, it can be problematic. When I got to college, and began to experience all of the pressures that college entails, I found myself waking up with a feeling of panic each morning. In high school I hadn’t cared all that much about grades. I took school pretty seriously, but it didn’t stress me out like it did my brother. So, in those early days of college, I would try to write down what I had to get done, searching my brain for what I might be missing. Often times I couldn’t think of anything that should be making me feel overwhelmed. Thinking through it helped me to calm down. However, the anxiety continued to get worse, partly because I didn’t know what was going on. I ended up drinking a lot on weekends that year. Still, throughout college, I never really got over that feeling that things were on the verge of falling apart, that I was failing, and that I would not find my way in the world. 

The summers brought some relief, and the anxiety gently subsided to some degree each year, but it was always there, and yet it wasn’t something that I had a name for. It was simply a not fully explicable bad feeling that followed me around. In my junior year, I started a band and I took a photo class that had a big impact on me. I slowly began to find my path in life towards being an artist, yet I was still riddled with self doubt. When it was time for me to sign up for my last semester of classes I realized that I was done and I was flooded with relief. It was only then that I began to realize how much stress I had been holding in. I quickly found an apartment and a number of low pressure jobs; typist, busboy, and messenger, and I focused on my band and my photography. My band practiced a couple of times a week, and I worked to set up shows for us. In addition, I started a project of taking photos while working as a messenger, and documenting the music scene. My rent was fairly low, so I didn’t need a lot of money. For the first time in my memory, the anxiety began to lift. 

My father wanted me to get a “real job”. That was tough. I had slowly started to figure out how I might move forward in the world in a way that felt right for me, and it felt like I was being undermined by that expectation. I felt unheard. My jobs were low pressure, and for the most part they gave me room to think and expand my awareness in the world. Soon, I began to get work that demanded a bit more responsibility; working as a production assistant, or getting a photo job, and these really cranked my anxiety back up. At least this made it more clear to me what was causing it. So, I tried to limit the amount of responsibility I took on, and also tried to find ways of being more comfortable with responsibility. Unfortunately, I didn’t give myself the room to visit a therapist. I believe it might have helped, if I had believed it might help. It took another 20 years of me struggling through the morass of general anxiety before I started to really lean into finding a solution. Ten years after that, I have made a lot of progress in finding more equanimity and balance in my life. I’m still a work in progress, but I can visualize the progress that I have made. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about anxiety recently, partly because it’s related to many different film projects that I’m working on. It’s also a big part of the film that we made five years ago about Dr John Sarno and his mind body approach to medicine. In addition, my daughters have been struggling with some anxiety and I want to be able to help them move through it with more ease than I did. Becoming an adult is anxiety-producing, but understanding how and why that is can help allay some of the fear and suffering. 

Ideas related to anxiety jumped out at me as we watched a Carolina basketball game the other night. Ever since he was a freshman, UNC basketball player Leaky Black has been a favorite player; someone our whole family has rooted for. Yet, there always seemed to be something holding him back, an almost imperceptible sense of hesitation, as if he just didn’t trust himself. This made him a wildly unselfish player who tended to pass up a shot in favor of delivering an assist. However, even those passes were sometimes stymied by that tiny hesitation. 

This year, as a senior, those less flashy aspects of his play – the assists, rebounds, tenacious defense, and positive energy – have had a big impact on the team. Still, he has tended to pass up shots. Yet, as the season has gone on, he’s been more likely to step into them and make the basket with previously unseen confidence. A few nights ago, against Louisville, his willingness to shoot changed the game. So, I looked him up on twitter, and found that just last week he talked about getting help with anxiety, something he never understood he had until last summer. My older daughter has been struggling with anxiety in a profound way recently, and she often feels like there’s nothing that can be done about it because it feels so all consuming and overwhelming. I was thinking a lot about that when Leaky stepped it up. 

An article about the game stated, “Black said had been suffering from anxiety. He credited Jackie Manuel, UNC’s director of player personnel, development and recruiting operations, for praying and meditating with him. “He said he saw himself in me and he went through the same thing,” Black said. “Every day he’s just been like, just praying with me and getting me to relax and doing meditation and stuff like that. And it’s really been helping a lot.”

Sometimes, when we can come to understand, or even name, what we are feeling, then we can gain some agency in trying to address it. However, it’s important that we also understand that we cannot think our way out of a problem that is fundamentally rooted in over-thinking. We need to use our thinking to gently shift our perspective, towards belief rather than doubt. Leaky Black has the skills and vision to be an NBA star. If he continues to bring the kind of game he brought the other night, I believe he could have a long career as a pro. Even if he doesn’t go to the pros, it’s clear that dealing with the anxiety will set him on a more grounded and successful path in life, and he exudes such grace that if anyone deserves it, he does.

In some ways, most of us are Leaky Black. We want to do well and contribute, but we often get in our own way due to doubt, or frankly unrecognized trauma in childhood. What’s so great about this moment is that not only is his play inspiring, but also is his willingness to talk about the struggles he’s faced. I don’t think this is happening in a vacuum. Over the past five years, I have seen a marked increase in the level of discussion around trauma. Last month I wrote about how the TV shows “Ted Lasso” and “Mare of Easttown” center their narratives around ideas related to moving through trauma. Athletes like Simone Biles and Leaky Black are willing to talk about their struggles with anxiety in ways that make it more possible for all of us to be present with our own feelings. It’s not always easy or comfortable to do so. While Biles got a lot of support for her decision to step back from competition, she also got a lot of heat for it. When we first showed our film “All The Rage” the first comment after the film was that it was very brave of me to be in it, and be somewhat emotionally present and naked. I thanked the commenter but said that I didn’t think it was all that brave. When reviews came out for the film they tended to directly shame me for being in the film. The LA Times review headline was “Director Hijacks his Own Film”. Thankfully, I was ready for this response so it didn’t take a huge emotional toll. However, it did impact our ability to get the film seen.

Again, that was five years ago, and since then for those like myself who have been paying attention, the amount that trauma awareness has grown is astounding. Getting back to the power of words, language, and communication, this is great news. When I was 20, I had no vocabulary to understand what I was feeling. Now, young people are seeing people move through stories of trauma on TV, and they are reading about it in the news. When I was young, the idea of trauma meant being in a car accident, getting attacked, or living through war. Now, there’s an increasing awareness that trauma is often in the eye of the beholder, and that trauma can be carried down through our genes. So, some of us might be more primed to respond with terror to events that others would be unfazed by. We also understand that trauma can happen when our basic needs for food, comfort, or understanding are not met. When we understand this, we can learn how to address how our automatic responses can often signal to our body that we are unsafe. When we see it, we can work to change it. We can’t think our way out of it, but we can learn to feel our way out.  Again, it was really amazing to see Leaky Black play in a way that illustrated this possibility and then read confirmation that getting help with his previously unrecognized anxiety paved the way for this success.

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