Conquering Trauma and Anxiety to Find Happiness

by Ellen P. McShane (Author)
©2022 Monographs XIV, 272 Pages


Conquering Trauma and Anxiety to Find Happiness offers trauma victims suffering from anxiety and other disorders freedom from continued emotional suffering. National mental health statistics state 60% of adults, approximately 150,000,000 people, report experiencing trauma. The National Institute of Mental health states 42,000,000 American adults live with an anxiety disorder often resulting from trauma. Through this book’s focus on affect theory and affect labeling, these millions of traumatized and anxious individuals learn to stop living with chronic stress and their reactive, inflexible, and rigid responses to life.
This book offers affect theory as a biological explanation to the consequences of living as a trauma victim by understanding what happened to them and repairing the harm. Affect theory presents nine biologically-coded affects to explain emotion, motivation, behavior, and personality with two positive, one neutral, and six negative affects. Stimulus from our environment activates an affect and its preprogrammed responses within our brain and body. Through facial expressions, along with other physical manifestations, we understand when an affect activates to help us understand our feelings.
Another intervention featured in this book, affect labeling or putting feelings into words, encourages us to focus attention in the present moment to read our body’s sensory information and integrate our brain and mind. Trauma victims understand how therapy provides an important intervention for recovery. An affect management system offers various interventions, such as diet and exercise, to overcome the consequences of trauma and anxiety. We no longer need to suffer if we experience trauma and anxiety.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part One: Understanding Trauma and Anxiety
  • Chapter 1. Linking Trauma with Anxiety
  • Chapter 2. Understanding the Brain on Trauma
  • Chapter 3. Making the Mind, Brain, and Body Connection
  • Chapter 4. How to Recover from Trauma and Anxiety
  • Chapter 5 Genes Are Not Our Destiny
  • Chapter 6. Therapy Moves Us Past Trauma and Anxiety
  • Chapter 7. A Letter to My Therapist on Trauma
  • Part Two: Understanding Affect Theory and Affect Labeling
  • Chapter 8. Discovering Affect Theory
  • Chapter 9. The Affect System Interfaces with Our Biology
  • Chapter 10. The Role of Scripts in Affect Theory
  • Chapter 11. Finding Affect Labeling
  • Chapter 12. The Importance of Language and the Voice
  • Chapter 13. A Letter to My Therapist on Affect Theory
  • Part Three: Exploring the Nine Affects
  • Chapter 14. Understanding the Nine Affects
  • Chapter 15. Interest-Excitement
  • Chapter 16. Enjoyment-Joy
  • Chapter 17. Surprise-Startle
  • Chapter 18. Distress-Anguish
  • Chapter 19. Anger-Rage
  • Chapter 20 Fear-Terror
  • Chapter 21. Shame-Humiliation
  • Chapter 22. Disgust and Dissmell
  • Chapter 23. A Letter to My Therapist on Healing
  • Part Four: Creating an Affect Management System
  • Section A. Foundations of an Affect Management System
  • Chapter 24. The Power of Empathy and Compassion
  • Chapter 25. Becoming a Flourishing Person
  • Section B: The Elements of an Affect Management System
  • Chapter 26. Naming Your Affect through Affect Labeling
  • Chapter 27. Building an Empathic Wall
  • Chapter 28. Diet and Health
  • Chapter 29. The Power of Exercise
  • Chapter 30. Sleep and Health
  • Chapter 31. Meditation and Mindfulness
  • Chapter 32. Artistic Therapy
  • Chapter 33. A Letter about Scholarly Personal Narrative
  • Chapter 34. Living without Anxiety
  • Epilogue
  • Index


My deepest appreciation extends to Dr. Robert J. Nash for his never-ending support over these past 16 years as he encouraged me to complete this personal narrative while he shared his contribution to the Academy with me, Scholarly Personal Narrative. I am forever grateful to Françoise Binamé and Linda Lane who read each draft and shared their honest feedback so I stayed focused and felt supported. In addition, Nancy Tips, Susanne Stewart, Peter DeYoe, Maria DeLuca, Dede Johnston, Heidi Parker, and Dawn Meunier responded to various versions of this book allowing me to continue to improve it based on their comments and recommendations. John Thibault’s constant support allowed me to stay the course as I recovered from trauma and anxiety. Dr. Dominique Desrochers’s knowledge about the brain, mind, and body offered me the opportunity to grow and heal. I also want to acknowledge the college students, colleagues, and supervisors who worked with me and allowed me to flourish.

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My ability to perceive reality and truth eluded me throughout most of my life. Usually, I looked to others to get advice and a sense of what occurred around me since I did not understand the meaning of my bodily sensations or social cues. Needless to say, this other-directed approach left me unaware and spinning in many directions. This book, written as a personal narrative in the form of a memoir, allowed me to delve into my own story as a person who experienced trauma, fear, and anxiety at an early age to reconstruct my narrative.

Through this book, I share how individuals who experience abuse, trauma, and anxiety can learn to reverse the consequences of traumatic experiences by understanding the biological and neurological basis of our affects, feelings, and emotions. When trauma becomes intense, prolonged, and inescapable, it can take hold over our lives at any time for a variety of reasons, such as child abuse, partner abuse, sexual assault, death, disease, injury, divorce, drug addiction, or war1. Understanding how to release fear and the resulting consequences linked to trauma, such as anxiety and depression, affords us a way to live a happy and positive life.

About ten years ago, I discovered Silvan Tomkins’s psychological work named affect theory, which explained the biological basis for our affects, ←1 | 2→feelings, and emotions. Through affect theory, I came to understand the human condition and how we function in the world as emotional beings based on specific neurological and biological responses to the environment around us. Affect theory taught me how to read people’s affects, feelings, and emotions through facial expressions, tones of voice, and physical stances. As a result of understanding affect theory, I perceived the world differently, reconstructed my narrative, and understood the importance of feeling safe. I stopped blaming myself for emotional difficulties and finally understood why things unfolded for me as they did.

My story as a victim of child abuse controlled how I moved through the world as an adult. For me, each decade presented emotional problems that appeared more and more difficult to resolve, which caused me confusion. I did not understand why things became more difficult as I aged. Four years of therapy gave me insights into why things were difficult for me but did not lessen my personal suffering or provide me with strategies to alleviate anxiety.

Affect theory made sense to me as it explained the biological basis for our affects, feelings, and emotions allowing me to put together the pieces of my life and my narrative. In addition, affect theory helped me understand how our past experiences created patterns, scripts, and states of mind, which profoundly influenced the present moment. As a result, I found a way through affect theory to understand the human condition in a new and exciting way.

Next, I discovered the power of putting affects and feelings into words or affect labeling, which offered me an additional way to heal from past, unresolved emotions. Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) described affect labeling as a way to release emotional stress by naming current affects and feelings out loud.2 The research supporting affect labeling made no links to affect theory but offered an intervention to assist me in living a stress-free life. Through affect labeling, I gained additional insight into the biology of emotions and how to manage my affects and feelings to alleviate anxiety.

The sense of relief resulting from these discoveries motivated me to go beyond my own experience to share these theories and ideas with others. My job as a university mentor brought me into contact with college students who suffered from anxiety. The New York Times reported on February 24, 2019, how 60% of college students report experiencing “overwhelming anxiety.”3 Researchers at University of California-Berkeley (UC Berkeley) confirmed that college students reporting anxiety disorders doubled between 2008 and 2018.4 The suffering and discomfort I witnessed in college students motivated ←2 | 3→me to share how I alleviated anxiety. As a result, this personal narrative explores how anyone who experiences trauma and anxiety can find happiness by understanding the biological links between our emotions, brain, mind, and body.

The Purpose of This Book

For most of my life, I asked questions of myself that seemed to have no answers. What happened to me that caused me to suffer? How can I avoid experiencing anxiety each day? How does my brain function as a result of anxiety? How can I become happy and content? What is the meaning of the self? Who am I? These questions swirled around me throughout my life. This book offered me a way to share the answers I found to many of the personal questions above as I came to understand the consequences of trauma from childhood abuse, which led to fear and a life filled with anxiety. Now, I understand how early, prolonged, and severe trauma at the hands of a trusted parent or caregiver profoundly hinders our ability to grow into healthy and functioning individuals. At the same time, I also understand how trauma harms anyone, regardless of their early experiences as a child, if it becomes severe, prolonged, and inescapable.5

Through this book, I pushed beyond my personal experiences to understand how the brain, body, and mind function as a result of trauma and anxiety. By writing a personal narrative, I discovered the importance of putting feelings into words and creating a coherent life narrative.

Now that I understand what trauma does to each of us on a biological level, I know traumatized individuals share similar stories. Trauma makes it difficult for its victims to find the words to tell their stories. As a result, trauma victims often become isolated. Instead of remaining alone and disconnected from others, I hope this book reduces the suffering for victims of abuse as they use the power of their voice to share their story, build relationships, and create a coherent narrative.

Therapists who work with trauma and abuse victims can also use the information in this book to understand how to support their clients more fully. Teachers, counselors, managers, sales people, administrators can use the insights from this book on affect theory and affect labeling to understand the biology of emotions and how to work more effectively with individuals or groups. Others who have not experienced abuse may find ways through this ←3 | 4→book to empathize with people they know who have suffered trauma or other difficulties in their lives.

Why a Personal Narrative?

Throughout this book, I use my personal experiences to illustrate and highlight the importance of affect theory. As a result, “I” statements appear throughout the book. Hopefully, by using an intentional and grounded personal narrative, my story speaks to you and offers you ideas for managing your life. By using my personal story, I tried to make complicated ideas come alive. At the same time, this personal narrative offered a way to link affect theory to broad cultural and social patterns whenever possible.

In writing this personal narrative, I reverse my long-standing approach to look outside myself for answers. Through this effort, I understand that my survival mechanism to turn to others for answers comes from experiencing abuse as a young child. As I look within as a victim of child abuse, I explore what “simply happens” to me as a human being regarding my affects, feelings, and emotions as I navigate the world.6 The focus of this personal narrative explores how my story connects with your life and to our culture.

Some Defining Concepts

There are several definitions that may assist you in understanding the concepts discussed in this book. Affects, feelings, and emotions have specific meanings within affect theory that are different from each other. Below are brief explanations of each term:

Affect: describes nine different affects as short-lived biological responses to stimulus from the environment;

Feeling: allows us to know when an affect activates;

Emotion: becomes a prolonged-response linking current affects and feelings with our stored memories of old, unresolved affects, feelings, and emotions.7

In affect theory, our affects and feelings represent our biology, while emotion reflects our biography. Affect theory explains that we all have the same biologically based nine affects: interest-excitement, enjoyment-joy, ←4 | 5→surprise-startle, distress-anguish, fear-terror, anger-rage, shame-humiliation, disgust, and dissmell.8 These affects help us identify the most important stimulus in the environment needing our attention so we do not feel overwhelmed.9

More detailed information follows about affect theory, but hopefully this preliminary introduction gives you what you need to understand the basic concepts supporting this transformative and enlightening approach focused on how we function as human beings. At the same time, we need some basic information about how the brain functions in order to develop an understanding of the consequences of trauma and anxiety.

The Basic Structure of Our Brain

All regions of the brain contain nerves.10 Neurons, as cells, comprise the basic working unit of the nerves within the brain to transmit information to other cells, muscles, or gland cells.11 Neurons, sensitive and observant, pick up signals and send them to other neurons through branch-like fibers called dendrites and axons to foster neural connectivity and integration.12

A gap exists between neurons, called the synapse, to allow signals to pass from one neuron to the next through synaptic connections.13 These synaptic signals move quickly to enhance communication and expand the brain’s processing power.14 The nerves in the brain are protected by an insulation barrier called the myelin sheath.15 Through the myelin sheath, the nerve keeps the chemical message until it gets transmitted to the next nerve.16

Neurons also process and transmit information through the release of neurotransmitters, chemical messages, generated across synaptic connections.17 Examples of some neurotransmitters are estrogen, testosterone, adrenaline, cortisol, dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and oxytocin.18 These chemical messengers lay the foundation for the nervous system to support new learning, cognition, emotional processing, stress management, motor activity, pain management, pleasure, perceptions, and memories.19 At the same time, excessive amounts or the inhibition of these neurotransmitters can harm us and ultimately cause disease.

Neurons need new experiences and new learning to wire together with other neurons to create complex connections and brain systems.20 Social relationships, aerobic exercise, novelty, and emotional arousal promote neural connectivity by expanding existing neurons through the process of neuroplasticity.21 Neurogenesis defines how new neurons grow and develop throughout ←5 | 6→our lives.22 However, we are still understanding neurogenesis. One recent research study from the University of California San Francisco showed how specific parts of our brain, the amygdala and the hippocampus, did not appear to develop new neurons after we are born as a result of experience.23 In this study, immature brain cells—present at birth—appear to divide and expand as a result of experience but decline throughout our lives. However, the researchers suggest future studies need to confirm their findings regarding the lack of new cell growth within the hippocampus. This 2019 study contradicts an earlier 2014 study, which documented neurogenesis and the growth of new cells within the hippocampus.24 These contradictory statements can lead to confusion as current brain research reshapes our understanding of how our brain functions.

However, many recent research findings are not as controversial and provide information on the structure of the brain. We know our brain serves as a complex system with an estimated 100 billion neurons. Each neuron establishes from 10 to 100,000 synaptic connections to form unlimited networks to strengthen our brainpower, help us process information, and learn new things.25 Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, psychotherapist, author, and UCLA professor, explains how neurons fire together in order to wire themselves together.26 Understanding how neurons form neural networks allows us to recognize and utilize our endless brainpower.

Brain activity goes beyond what happens in our head.27 Our muscles, skin, heart, intestines, stomach, and lungs use extensive networks of neural nerves and tissue to process and relay sensory data to the brain. The nervous system plays a part in forming these complex and adaptive brain functions through its two divisions, the central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS).28 The CNS includes the brain and the spinal cord while the PNS includes the autonomic and somatic nervous systems. Neural connections control the autonomic nervous system to regulate heart rate, respiration, and digestion balancing the brain and the body while we are awake or asleep.29 As a result of this amazing complexity, I use the term “brain” to include its connections to the body so we recognize the intricacies connecting our brain and mind. Plus, this approach allows us to understand the power of the brain to repair damaged connections and create new patterns within our lives through neuroplasticity.30 Chapter Two offers further understanding on how various brain systems and subsystems utilize and enhance the power of the brain.31

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Finding Happiness

Happiness offered me a refreshing state of mind as my anxiety lifted and I understood what happened to me, the biology of emotions, and the value of a coherent narrative. The more I used my mind to focus my attention to activate a sense of awareness, the easier life became for me and the happier I felt. Positive Psychology, the study of positive emotions and character traits, offers six overarching virtues for us to find happiness, including wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.32 All of these virtues played a role in my developing happiness. In addition, Positive Psychology poses three ways to achieve happiness. Happiness comes from encouraging within us 1) positive emotions and pleasure, the pleasant life; 2) engagement, the engaged life; and 3) meaning, the meaningful life.33 If we incorporate all three of these approaches within our lives, happiness becomes magnified.34 Pleasure, engagement, and meaning became part of my life as I conquered trauma and anxiety and found happiness. I hope you too can foster happiness in your life through learning about affect theory, affect labeling, and the creation of a personal affect management system to foster your health and a sense of well-being.

Structure of This Book

Part One of this book offers an overview of the consequences of trauma with a focus on how our brain develops anxiety once we are traumatized. Part Two focuses on understanding affect theory, the importance of affect labeling, and the power of our voice to help us heal. Part Three further explores important details of our nine affects and their common characteristics. Part Four examines the various components that comprise an affect management system. Key foundational approaches to establishing an affect management system, such as, intuition, empathy, and compassion, serve as the focus of the first section of Part Four. In the second section of Part Four, the various strategies needed to create a personal affect management system provide you different options to foster a sense of well-being and happiness.

At the end of the first three parts of this book, I include a letter to my own therapist regarding the ideas discussed in each section. These letters to my therapist allowed me to discuss the many benefits I received from therapy as I recovered from trauma and anxiety. At the same time, I explore in these ←7 | 8→letters how the information addressed in this book might have offered me additional options to alleviate my anxiety. Hopefully, therapists can find ideas and strategies in these letters and in this book to provide support for trauma victims. Therapy becomes an important intervention for people who live with the consequences of trauma, which often results in anxiety and other mental health disorders.


1. Louis Cozolino, Why Therapy Works: Using Our Minds to Change Our Brains, Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), 198.


XIV, 272
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (December)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. XIV, 272 pp., 29 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Ellen P. McShane (Author)

Ellen P. McShane, an educator for 49 years, worked as a teacher, counselor, social worker, college administrator, and university student services professional. She earned her master’s in guidance and counseling from The Ohio State University and her doctorate in education from the University of Vermont.


Title: Conquering Trauma and Anxiety to Find Happiness
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288 pages