Dealing with Anxiety from Childhood Abuse


It’s not always easy or even possible to leave things in the past. If you’re an adult who’s experienced childhood abuse, you know that sometimes, even when you’ve done your best to move on, you may find the past abuse leaking into your adult life in the form of anxiety.

Feeling worried or nervous sometimes isn’t unusual. Anxiety is a normal human reaction to stressful situations. But those fears and worries aren’t temporary for people with anxiety disorders. Instead, their anxiety persists and can even get worse over time.

Trauma from childhood abuse—including physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, exposure to domestic violence, parental substance abuse, and abandonment—is among the most significant risk factors for adult anxiety. Experiencing childhood trauma can predispose people to develop anxiety and panic symptoms and disorders in several ways, from unpredictable childhood environments, changes in how one perceives physical sensations, and changes in brain structure and function.


Toxic Stress and Your Brain

Potentially traumatic connected events that occur before a child reaches 18, known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), have been associated with negative health and behavior outcomes later in life. However, in some cases, the effects of toxic stress aren’t realized until adulthood and may not appear for years, or even decades, after the experiences occur.

Researchers have found that childhood maltreatment can cause toxic stress, changing the structure of the brain. When children live in unusually stressful and long-lasting traumatic situations, they are constantly stuck in the “fight or flight” response that releases stress hormones that damage their tiny infrastructure.

When brain architecture is altered, it can affect how different parts of the brain communicate with one another, for example, for people who experience sustained childhood stress, that changed wiring trains the brain to perceive innocuous situations as a threat.

Of course, not everyone who experiences the trauma of childhood abuse will develop anxiety. Still, many people who experience childhood trauma develop some kind of anxiety or panic symptoms. Similarly, not everyone who lives with anxiety and panic experienced childhood trauma. It’s also important to point out that experiencing trauma doesn’t mean you are irreparably damaged.

5 Ways to Deal with Anxiety from Childhood Abuse

If you experienced toxic stress due to childhood abuse, you don’t have to live in the grip of anxiety. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet or one size fits all remedy, but you can take steps to manage anxiety.

1. Therapy

Seeking professional help with a trusted therapist can bring greater awareness to the triggers and pathways of anxiety and make the process of becoming aware of one’s traumas and overcoming them so much easier. In addition, there are a variety of evidence-based therapy treatments for treating childhood trauma, including:

    • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) is used to help treat people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). CPT focuses on re-contextualizing and helping rationalize the traumatic events experienced by the victim and has been shown to reduce the effects of trauma experienced as children.
    • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a type of psychotherapy specifically focused on trauma. TF-CBT helps people change destructive patterns into positive solutions through awareness and cognitive responses.
    • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a form of psychotherapy in which people recall traumatic memories while moving their eyes from side to side in a rhythmic pattern. This treatment helps decrease the negative effects of PTSD.
    • Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET) is a therapy that puts the events of a person’s life during positive traumatic points into context.
    • Prolonged Exposure Therapy, also referred to as “flooding,” exposes a person to traumatic memories to help them understand and rationalize those events.


2. Medication

While medications can’t cure an anxiety disorder, they can improve symptoms and help you function better. Medications for anxiety disorders often include:

  • Anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines, may decrease your anxiety, panic, and worry. Your healthcare provider may prescribe an anti-anxiety medication for the short-term (they become less effective over time as people build up a tolerance to them), then taper you off or possibly add an anti-depression medication to the mix.
  • Antidepressants also help with anxiety disorders. They improve mood and reduce stress by tweaking how your brain uses certain chemicals. However, antidepressants may take some time to work, so you must be patient. Talk to your provider before stopping an anti-depression medication.
  • Although usually used for high blood pressure, Beta-blockers can help reduce some of the physical symptoms of anxiety disorders, such as rapid heartbeat, shaking, and trembling.


3. Support Groups

Having a safe, judgment-free space and the compassion of others, especially a community of peers, can be a tremendous help. In addition, small-group therapy and online support groups can make a huge difference.

For example, Louder than Silence: Ending Child Abuse and Neglect Survivor Community, launched by EndCAN through Inspire, offers a free online community of support groups. It’s a safe place where people can be authentic, anonymously discuss their experiences and ask questions, get support from other survivors, and learn from other people who have “been there.”


4. Holistic Therapies

Meditation, mindfulness, massage, acupuncture, yoga, art therapy, and other holistic activities treat ​​the body, mind, and spirit toward comprehensive recovery.


5. Education

Learning about anxiety disorders can help you feel more in control. Help friends and loved ones understand the disorder as well so they can support you.


You don’t have to live with anxiety. Instead, find the therapy or combinations of strategies that work for you, give yourself the time you need, and you can heal from anxiety caused by childhood abuse.