06/03/2013 01:05 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2013

The Moment I Knew: Understanding The Stress Of Childhood Trauma

When we asked readers to tweet about the moment they knew they needed to de-stress, the responses were alarming. Breaking points were marked by health crises, family problems and other types of suffering. We decided to go deeper into some of these stories in the hope that others can recognize signs of extreme stress and start to figure out their own paths to de-stressing.

An anxiety attack is debilitating. I felt like someone was sitting on my chest. I felt like the responsibilities of my life, of the benign day-to-day, were completely overwhelming. Each decision, every move was like climbing a mountain without oxygen. It saps you of your strength and emotions. It drove me to tears on every occasion. Crying at work. Crying with partners. Crying with friends. I didn't know what was happening to me. For 12 years of my life, I felt completely out of control.

When an anxiety attack occurs, the amygdala, an almond-shaped set of neurons responsible for fight or flight within the temporal lobe, hijacks the frontal cortex. The executive functioning of the frontal cortex responsible for communicating that the stress you're experiencing is not actually as big a deal as the amygdala makes it out to be, goes offline. If stress begins at a young age, the child is unable to differentiate between dangerous stressors and real life, leaving everything to become a stressor. The barrier between ok, and not ok; safe, and not safe, is gone. The child lives in a constant state of anxiety. Couple that with the hyper vigilance of post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and you have me.

One of the first memories I have is of my dad raising his hand at me for the first time when I was 11.

As an only child in a one-parent household, there was nowhere for me to escape. No outlet for my stress. No nurturing for the after-effects of the horrifying chase around the house and subsequent belting I received. The picture I have in my mind is of me, after the rampage, on the floor of my room; knees to chest, crying and scared, huddled in the corner--the furthest point from the door. My memory vantage point is from that door. I see myself, my inner self, my younger self, utterly defenseless. It's a horrible memory and has been the key for me to begin unlocking and releasing the trauma that is stored inside my body.

So how did the trauma of those memories affect my adult life? How did I function at work, in relationships and with friends while living in a state of hyper-arousal? Answer: I didn't. I pushed friends away. My vulnerability was locked deep inside. Safe. I was untrusting of coworkers and isolated myself from everyone. And in a very recent and unfortunate situation, I was fired from my job, the job that I thought was going to be my career. Not surprisingly, my behavior affected the workplace--a common story for people suffering from mental illness.

My dismissal was just one of a cascade of things that have occurred in the last 10 months that finally, after 12 years of actively knowing there was something wrong but not ever being able to put my finger on it, I had an answer for.

Last July, my relationship fell apart. I have fallen madly in love with exactly one person in my life so far, and she was it. In November of the same year, a dear friend passed away suddenly at 35, leaving behind her wife and baby. And in January of this year, I had an epiphany while in the middle of a breakdown at work: my anxiety was about my dad and the trauma I suffered as a child. When I told my boss that I think I have PTSD, she said "I wish you would have told me that last year." I was fired eight days later.

There is definitely a positive side to this story.

When I was let go from my job, I felt relieved. Walking out of the building, leaving the stress behind, was exhilarating. I felt free for the first time. Relationship-wise, my last partner was able to awaken a part of me that I didn't know was there. My love for her allowed me to trust her, which in turn taught me how to trust people around me. I was able to be vulnerable, cultivate deeper friendships and build a foundation of support around myself.

As for my father, seven years ago I saw a counselor regularly and did enough work in order to be able to keep my father in my life. Thankfully, he's not the man that he was when I was younger. He's grown, softened and become the father I need. My counselor now can still guide me into the memories of when I was younger in order to unlock and release those emotions. But when I leave her office, I know that those memories are not my current reality.

I can't emphasize enough how important counseling is for dealing with anxiety and post-traumatic stress. I couldn't tell you after an anxiety attack what it was that was driving me to think the thoughts I did. Multiple partners have asked me "Why?"--the single most frustrating question for anyone in the throes of mental illness. I didn't know why. I felt like I was standing in a room with the lights off. I felt broken. I was distraught after every episode. And not surprisingly, when my emotions had swung back to the other side of the spectrum, I thought "I can beat this." That I could "conquer this without support." I couldn't have been more wrong.

To ease my symptoms, I agreed with the help of my doctor to start taking Celexa, a mid-range anti-depressant effective for anxiety and PTSD.

I'm thankful to have cultivated a wide range of support to assist me through my transformation. A strong word, I admit. But I feel as though these experiences have allowed me to shed very old, very painful and very unhealthy parts of myself. Pieces of my ego have fallen off like icebergs from a glacier, as a very wise friend aptly described.

My advice: Seek help. Talk to your doctor. Talk to a counselor. Be honest with yourself. And look back at your childhood. So much of who we are was forged at a very young age. Much of what we learned we can unlearn on our own.

"And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."
~Anais Nin

Is there a moment you hit a stress breaking point and knew you needed to change your life? If you'd like to share your story, please send personal essays under 1200 words to for consideration in this series.