07/19/2016 02:56 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2017

Living In The Shadow Of Latent Anxiety

We typically think of trauma as having something terrible happen to us. In fact, at its most basic, trauma is any emotionally fraught experience that changes the way we view the world. That experience can run the gamut from getting lost in the mall as a child to the kind of near-death experience that is typically the harbinger of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). How we interpret and integrate--or fail to integrate--that experience determines its impact on us.

The Spectrum of Trauma

The definition of trauma is rather broad, and includes responses to both one-time incidents and repetitive experience. It specifically focuses on our response to an event, rather than a determination of whether or not an event is traumatic. The experience of trauma is subjective. What one person may view as a traumatic, another person may simply see as something to be taken in stride.

One-time incidents typically have a near-death element associated with them. They are often abrupt, unexpected and beyond our control. These can include things like accidents, natural disasters, the sudden death of a loved one, or random acts of violence. What happens in response to these kinds of situations is that we are thrown into an instinctive survival mode, known as fight-or-flight, and, quite literally, get stuck there. This state of hypersensitivity and hypervigilance is at the heart of PTSD.

The ongoing or repetitive trauma associated with things like physical, emotional or sexual abuse, neglect or social deprivation feed into a more abiding and, in some ways more insidious, state of mind. Rather than being caught up in the hypertensive state we associate with traumatic stress, this is more of a low-level anxiety. This low-level anxiety resulting from ongoing trauma has the potential to flow into a state of latent anxiety that gnaws at the edges of everything.

The Shadow of Latent Anxiety

Trauma of any sort, large or small, overwhelms our ability to cope. As such, the vast majority of our emotional distress can be traced to most anything we subjectively experience as traumatic--whether we realize it or not. For instance, if a child, at the sufferance of an overbearing parent, doesn't have the opportunity to establish personal boundaries, she may develop a sense of powerlessness. This ongoing sense of helplessness in face of authority is the kind of traumatic experience that feeds low-level anxiety. That anxiety can then translate into an abiding uncertainty about the world, feeling a lack of control in personal relationships or just a simple, unshakable fear of what's behind Door #3.

For someone experiencing latent anxiety what's happened is the initial traumatic experience has taken on a symbolic value that generalizes to other, similar experiences. It's important to differentiate this experience from generalized, or free-floating, anxiety. Unlike generalized anxiety, latent anxiety has a genesis and a focus. More significantly, its symbolic value bleeds into a web of associations that turn everyday experience into an emotionally fraught rollercoaster ride.

Returning to our example, this sense of powerless, and the attendant low-level anxiety associated with the childhood experience, in adulthood becomes an engine of associated anxiety. When that anxiety is activated through, for example, a partner who fails to respect boundaries by barging into the bathroom or rifling through a purse in search of the car keys, the experience gets associated with the surrounding elements and circumstances. A shower, for instance, which was once a source of privacy and relaxation, is now a place of tension and fear, even when the offending partner is not or is no longer present.

The experience of latent anxiety is actually quite common. Getting at the source of the anxiety can diffuse its power, changing our experience. We may need some assistance in doing so because, after all, a fish doesn't know that he's wet. We may be too close to our own experience to see that our anxiety is attached to the abiding sense of powerlessness and lack of boundaries we associate with someone whom we've parentalized. On the other hand, part of reclaiming ourselves is staying present with our emotions and unpacking them to get at the root.

© 2016 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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