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When under too much stress, INFJs might experience anxiety.
However, not all our anxiety is caused by those common stress triggers found in our work and relationships.
Sometimes, our anxiety is a result of our childhood trauma. Childhood trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing event we experienced in childhood.
And even when we become adults, we are still afraid of the same things
that we used to fear as a kid.
So in this blog post, we will focus on the anxiety that is caused by our childhood trauma and learn how we can deal with it better as an INFJ.
But first, I’ll share with you my recent experience with anxiety and the childhood trauma associated with it, how it affects me, and how I deal with it.
It’s something minor (commonly known as small ‘t’ trauma, as opposed to large ‘T’ trauma in psychology), so there’s no need to worry. This post won’t be triggering.
My Childhood Trauma and Anxiety Experience
Public Speaking Anxiety
Three months ago, I was interviewed in front of a group of people twice. Both times, I was feeling nervous and I had insomnia the night before.
During the first interview, there was a tingling, buzzing sensation in my chest. I was super thirsty. Both my mouth and throat felt dry and I licked my lips several times. But I brushed it off because I thought it was the three tuition lessons I had prior to the interview that was causing me to feel thirsty.
We INFJs aren’t always aware of our emotions.
However, one month later during another interview, I experienced the same physical symptoms again. And I didn’t even have any lessons that day! What’s more, as I was waiting to be interviewed, my body was mildly shaking. At first, I thought I was feeling cold. It was only when a music clip was played and my body relaxed, I knew that the shaking was due to my anxiety.
I thought it was quite normal for an INFJ (or anyone for that matter) to be afraid of public speaking, so I didn’t think too much of it.
The Childhood Trauma Associated With My Anxiety
A couple of days after the second interview, I realize that my public speaking anxiety is mostly attributed to an incident I had experienced as an eight-year-old.
We don’t necessarily recognize the distress we felt as a kid.
When I was eight, my teacher asked me to stand in front of the class and keep the class quiet until the next teacher comes. Being an introvert and didn’t know what to do at that time, I just stood there as still as a tree and counted the number of people who are talking.
When the next teacher came in, she thought I was punished. So she told the whole class: Don’t be as naughty as this boy or you would be punished like him. Then, she asked me to return to my seat. And I did without even clarifying the situation with her!
At that time, I was probably feeling helpless, misunderstood, and ashamed. But I have no recollection of all these feelings even though this scene has always been vivid in my mind. Why is this so?
INFJ Trauma and the Freeze Response
After reading several books on trauma lately, I realized that I was frozen when I was standing in front of the class. Most of us know about the fight and flight response. When there’s a stressful or life-threatening situation, we either defend ourselves or run away from it. But there’s a third response — freeze. It’s like animals “playing dead” when they face dangers. They make themselves less desirable to the predators.
Preferring harmony, INFJs usually won’t go into the fight response unless we are in rage. We tend to “flight” or “freeze” instead. I don’t consider myself a shy person. I had performed on stages multiple times in front of an audience that is far larger than my recent interviews. But somehow when it comes to speaking in front of a group of people, I’m at a loss for words and I froze.
As a kid, I couldn’t tell my class to lower their volume. I couldn’t tell my teacher that I was wronged. When I was introducing myself in university, my mind just blanked out for five to ten seconds after I said my name. Even when I was answering the questions during my second interview, a part of me just wanted to end the interview and get off the stage quickly instead of taking the time to share what I had initially prepared.
Freezing is a natural response to a traumatic situation.
It’s only now that I can empathize with my inner child, the eight-year-old me. A teacher will have a difficult time controlling a noisy class of 40 boys, let alone a soft-spoken, quiet, eight-year-old. I was tasked with an adult responsibility but I wasn’t even taught the skills to manage a group of people!
Freezing had helped me to block out all the overwhelming emotions that were too much for an eight-year-old to handle. So I felt rather numbed about the situation. But it has affected my life and created some social anxiety around people.
How The Childhood Trauma Affects My Life
Growing up, I just conveniently assume that I’m not good at public speaking and leading people. It didn’t occur to me that an eight-year-old is not supposed to have such skills!
It’s not that I want to be a school teacher or a manager now. But I can definitely see how that incident has limited my choices and influenced my career decisions. I often found myself avoiding leadership roles, quitting my jobs before I was promoted to the next role that requires me to manage people.
Avoidance becomes a habit.
And it’s not just my career path, it affects the decisions I made in my daily life. Instead of freezing or experiencing anxiety, I choose to run away.
One day, I went for my usual morning walk and I saw a class of schoolboys and their teacher at the river. My instant reaction was to walk somewhere else. Then, I thought to myself: Why can’t I walk past them? I noticed how uncomfortable I feel to be in front of a bunch of noisy boys. Subconsciously, it must have reminded me of how helpless I was previously.
Now, it all makes sense to me why I never go to my class first thing in the morning as a student. I would rather hide in the study area or somewhere quiet and go to class only minutes before the school bell rings. This is beyond preferences for serenity, it’s avoidance.
Avoiding crowds don’t really affect my life too much. I can live without public speaking, being a manager, or be in crowded places. But it does create invisible obstacles that limit my potential, my choices, and ultimately, my freedom.
Two Ways to Deal With Anxiety and Trauma
In general, there are two ways to deal with anxiety and trauma — the top-down method and the bottom-up method. Before we can understand how they work, we have to first understand how our brain works.
The human brain can be divided into three major parts:
- Neocortex brain (aka the rational and thinking brain)
- Limbic brain (aka the emotional and feeling brain)
- Reptilian brain (aka the instinctual brain)
The instinctual brain is the part of the brain that gets develop first in childhood. It detects threats, keeps us safe, and activates our fight, flight, and freeze response. It’s like a fire alarm. Whenever smoke is detected in the building, it will tell you that there’s danger through your physical sensations.
1. The Top-Down Method
The top-down approach of healing trauma is by working from the thinking brain down to the instinctual brain.
It is commonly used in counseling, talk therapies, psychotherapy and etc. The therapist talks to you one-to-one. He or she tries to understand your history, the situation, and how you think and feel, then offer you a different perspective to change your behaviors and habits.
Our thoughts affect how we feel, which in turn, affects how we act.
By understanding the causes of our trauma, our wrong perception, and belief system, we can choose to act differently. For example, after understanding my trauma as an eight-year-old, I can now consciously choose to walk past the noisy boys instead of avoiding them.
2. The Bottom-Up Method
The bottom-up approach of healing trauma is by working from the instinctual brain up to the thinking brain.
This method deals with our physical symptoms first.
It’s often used by trauma therapists to help you reduce, relieve, and regulate your body sensations. The therapists don’t need to know about your history or the cause of your trauma. Their role is to help you cope with the anxiety reactions and pain experience in your body.
Some of our reactions are not based on our thoughts and beliefs. They are based on our instincts. We react instantaneously to things, people, and events that we feel threatening or remind us of our trauma.
How to Calm INFJ Anxiety
1. Put aside your usual INFJ preferences when dealing with anxiety.
As INFJs, we usually use the top-down approach because we prefer to self-reflect, find meanings, and generate insights. We want to understand why we behave a certain way and find the connection between our past trauma and our current behaviors. It’s what our dominant function, introverted intuition (Ni), does best.
However, trauma experts such as Peter Levine suggests that the bottom-up approach is better for dealing with anxiety and trauma, at least for the initial stage.
When there is fire, we put out the fire first.
We don’t go around finding the cause of the fire or how we can prevent the fire from happening the next time. It’s an emergency!
Knowing how your trauma affects your life and the causes of your anxiety might be helpful in the long run. But it might not help you reduce your anxiety at all. Our instinctual brain will still react to triggers that bear a resemblance to our traumatic experiences. Even though it might be irrational to the thinking mind, the body always remembers the pain. The instinctual brain will hijack and take over the thinking brain.
In fact, when you revisit your traumatic experiences, you recreate the scenes in your mind. INFJs are prone to anxiety because re-experiencing the trauma in your mind might actually increase your anxiety and bring about other overwhelming emotions. So it’s best to put aside your usual INFJ preferences and address the fire first.
2. Pay attention to your bodily sensations and allow energy to discharge.
As INFJs, we seldom pay attention to our bodies. We tend to be head in the clouds. When we experience anxiety or distress, we might over-indulge in extraverted sensing (Se) activities to numb our senses.
For example, we might binge eat, watch TV mindlessly or drink alcohol excessively. In extreme cases, some INFJs might also run away from their bodies by dissociating, disembodying, or depersonalization. But numbing or suppressing our bodily sensations doesn’t help us to resolve the problem in the long run. It actually makes it worse.
Trauma is the trapped energy in our bodies.
When we adopt the freeze response such as numbing, the energy to flight and fight gets trapped in our body. When we experience anxiety, the shaking and trembling actually help to discharge and release the trapped energy. Our body will naturally return to its equilibrium when we stay mindful of our body and allow it to do its job.
Observing your bodily sensations is not scary at all. It just seems scary for some INFJs at first because we are not used to handling our bodily sensations. Noticing our physical symptoms takes practice. I also didn’t have a good sense of my body until three years ago. It’s only after my episode of depression and panic attack when all my bodily sensations and emotions were exaggerated that I began to pay more attention to my emotions and body.
If we are able to sit with these sensations and embrace them, we can work through them and learn how to calm them down.
3. Regulate your physical sensations.
Luckily for me, during the second interview, there were two interviewees on stage. So when it’s the other person’s turn, I was actually regulating my breathing and keeping my over-reacted alarm system calm.
Then, when it was my turn to speak, I searched for familiar and encouraging faces in the audience and looked at my interviewer friend to find some sense of security. Since I’m not completely alone on the stage, I felt somewhat safe.
Deep breathing is a good way to help soothe anxiety.
When we are anxious, our breathing tends to be shallow. Taking a few deep breaths from your abdomen for one to three seconds can really help to calm your nerves. If you are hyperventilating, you might want to put one of your hands on top of your forehead and another hand at the back of your head for a period of time. This will bring the blood flow back to your head.
These are just a couple of energy healing techniques. For more techniques, you can read books about energy healing.
You can also use reparenting techniques to reassure yourself and calm your anxiety. My inner child is afraid of speaking in front of the crowd because it wasn’t equipped with the skills. But now as adults, I can get better at public speaking and I don’t have to avoid it anymore.
The fire alarm rings because it believes there’s a fire. If we keep reassuring our inner child or our instinctual brain that these perceived threats are no longer dangerous anymore, it will eventually feel more at ease.
If you want to learn how to reparent your inner child, you can read my book, Parent Yourself Again.
4. Only examine the trauma after energy is discharged.
I could have analyzed why and interpreted my situation during the day of the interview. But it’s not going to help me cope with my anxiety or the interview. In fact, I might get into a Ni-Ti loop, come up with negative interpretations of the situation, and not turn up for the interview.
But there’s not to say we shouldn’t use our introverted intuition (Ni) and introverted thinking (Ti) at all. We can use Ni and Ti after we release the physical sensations in your body. Like in my case, my Ni naturally provides the insights and connected my public speaking experiences to the incident I experienced as an eight-year-old a couple of days later. I didn’t make any special effort to think about it.
Cope with the anxiety first, then analyze the trauma if necessary.
Just don’t let the Ni and Ti interfere with your energy discharge and run away from the releasing process too early. If you don’t allow your body to discharge the frozen energy and complete the process, your body will forever be under the impression that it’s under threat.
And the “fire alarm” will always remain faulty, thinking there’s fire when there isn’t fire.
If you want to find out more about how to love yourself as an INFJ, be sure to download my free eBook called Self-Acceptance for INFJs.
Featured Photo Credit: Nathan Cowley