Social anxiety & hyperarousal | Michelle Dixon

Ever had the experience of being out – maybe in an unfamiliar social situation, or in a crowded place – and suddenly you freeze, or panic, feel suddenly emotional or angry.

For the life of you, you just can’t figure out what to do or say … and then you feel ashamed, or you shut down, or your inner critic starts to tell you what a loser you are…

It’s unfortunately not uncommon when there’s been trauma in your past. Trauma can stop us from feeling at ease in many situations which trigger the nervous system, and often this happens in a social context.

This is because all of your internal resources (like your nervous system) have been trained by past trauma to be highly vigilant to threat.

Your body remembers shocking experiences or a series of traumatic events. In fact, it’s the body’s job to keep you safe from threat. It is wired to prevent any trauma from happening again. To this end, it is highly attuned to the environment, in a state some might call ‘paranoid’. 

You can imagine that this hypervigilance would make it very difficult to be at ease socially, hence the reactions, from panic and emotion, to anxiety and self-criticism/shame.

The state of hyperarousal

Hyperarousal is a ramping up of stress symptoms connected to past traumatic events, and is called this because the nervous system is overly (‘hyper’) aroused. It becomes hyper-responsive to anything your body/brain connects to past traumatic events, even if your thinking, self-aware mind don’t ‘remember’ the connection.

Common hyperarousal symptoms include:

  • extreme emotionality including crying bouts and anger outbursts
  • sudden anxiety (like social anxiety or paranoia)
  • irritability
  • difficulty concentrating
  • insomnia
  • panic attacks
  • excessive startle reflex and/or being constantly on guard for threats

Sights, sounds, smells, words, an energy/vibe and more can trigger your nervous system into a state that feels familiar to it – from past trauma. The body perceives an external trigger and goes into a fight-or-flight state.

Epinephrine (adrenaline) is one of two stress hormones that play a role in the body’s flight-or-fight response, producing pupil dilation, ramping up blood pressure, and stimulating a rapid heart rate. Cortisol is then activated in the body’s attempt to calm the system down.

The problem is that too much of this reaction causes the body’s stress response system to become dysregulated.

What this means is that no sooner does your body perceive something that it links to trauma, then your body goes into overdrive … hyperarousal!

Too much of a good thing is bad 

The body’s production of cortisol is meant to relieve symptoms, but too much production of cortisol means the body’s stores of cortisol start to run low. In situations of chronic stress, cortisol levels are high. But with repeated hits to the system in those with PTSD, cortisol levels tend to be low.

A secondary result of this for women is hormonal problems – because the body starts to ‘mine’ (extract/convert) cortisol from progesterone, which can mess up the menstrual cycle, furthering affecting mood and health.

This can create a negative cycle in which low cortisol worsens trauma symptoms and health problems – those very same symptoms which led to the overproduction of cortisol to begin with!

The other thing that happens is that hyperarousal can cause the neurological pathways to the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis—which regulates the stress response, to become overly sensitized and to then overreact and create too much epinephrine, which can further stimulate the brain’s fear circuitry…causing more fear, stress, panic and anxiety.

There is a real danger here

Chronic hyperarousal can lead to feelings of shame, depression, even hopelessness. This can in turn lead to destructive behaviour and self-sabotage. It’s so vital to get support once you learn about the symptoms.

A 6 Step Roadmap for Holistic Healing

I know it’s a big and scary topic, and healing isn’t easy, but it’s possible if by healing, you mean shifting from an experience of pain and suffering, to one of peace.

If you’d like to learn more about trauma symptoms and how to heal holistically, you can grab my 6 Step Roadmap to healing holistically …. just opt in below!

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