Our guest blogger, psychotherapist Mary-Joy Johnson, talks about trauma and self-care.
Humans have evolved to respond, adapt, restore and thrive in an endless cycle of stimulus (things happening that make us feel something) and response. We automatically respond to threat and danger, and then return back to a productive state of calm and a ‘felt’ sense of safety.
Many people who experience a traumatic event will, after a period of adjustment, recover well and go on with their lives. For some however, for many reasons the healing process can get stuck. Sometimes this is because of ongoing chronic trauma, or not feeling safe and supported. Other times, sensory processing differences or other brain differences (neurodiversity) can affect recovery.
This article is about how caring for a loved one who has experienced trauma can also affect you as a parent, carer (or partner).
A bit about trauma….
Trauma, PTSD and Complex PTSD occur when the sense of danger never goes away fully after a traumatic event(s). Traumatic events can be one-off severe and life-threatening events, “chronic” events (such as repeated abuse) or life events that we may not traditionally think of as “trauma”, such as school bullying.
Becoming stuck in these states over a prolonged period of time shows up in our behaviours, how we relate to our partners, children, parents, families, friends and colleagues. Perhaps we are more snappy/aggressive in how we speak. Maybe we hit ‘boiling point’ very quickly/suddenly, or want to withdraw, feeling depressed, wanting to be on our own more and more.
This can all be hard to live with, both as the person experiencing the symptoms and for those who live with us.
The increased sense of fear, anxiety or depression is our body, still stuck in the past, trying to keep us safe with enough reactive energy to ‘fight’ or the reduction of energy to enable withdrawal into a ‘freeze’ state – again, to stay safe.
For the parent/carer of the person affected, seeing your loved one dealing with very painful emotions can be difficult and upsetting. It can disrupt our own emotional wellbeing and how we physically feel. None of this is our child or loved one’s fault however.
If your child may have prolonged Stress/Trauma/PTSD or Complex PTSD professional support will be required. Where good trauma therapy services are available it benefits the whole family. Take the first step by visiting your GP for advice.
Understanding the Nervous System
As mammals, humans are hard wired to connect, calm/soothe and ‘attach’. We rely on our relationships for our psychological safety, as much as for our physical safety.
Just like other mammals, we attune through our nervous systems, to the experiences of others in our family or ‘herd’. When a wild horse becomes aware of danger, cues are sent through its behaviour, movement and physical activation (non-verbally) to the other members of the herd to ‘flee’ or respond. Suddenly the herd will synchronise and move off at great speed, seeming almost as one. Once the threat is over, the herd will drop back into a calm and regulated state, ready to graze, play and socialise once again, each horse providing the reassurance to one another that the threat is over.
We humans can also communicate non-verbally:
- There is a threat (responding by attempting to diffuse the situation first, then fighting, fleeing or freezing.)
- The threat is over (we can go back to what we were doing, rest well, eat and digest food and feel connected and friendly with the people around us)
So our presence as a calm, relaxed and grounded (in our bodies and feeling solid) adult, reassuring the family that the threat is over, not just through words but through our emotional, psychological and body state can have a very important impact. Sometimes it is not what we say that helps, but simply how it ‘feels’ to be with us.
We can be the reassurance that a ‘felt sense’ of safety can and will return.
When Caring Becomes Difficult
Compassion Fatigue or Secondary Trauma (also known as vicarious trauma), is where the carer or family members start to have similar symptoms to the child or adult who is traumatised. This can be through being affected by their behaviours, which can feel unsafe and confusing, activating our own stress response. It can also be through hearing them speak about their traumatic event stories repeatedly, which might be shocking, deeply sad and/or provoke intrusive images of the event in our mind.
Living with another’s distress can be overwhelming and we all have our own tipping points. The point where our own defences (emotional, mind and body) kick in is known as Compassion Fatigue. We are all human. We have our own vulnerabilities (and strengths). Just because we are the parent or carer doesn’t mean we haven’t got our own histories, our own thresholds, tolerance (and lack of) to ongoing stress.
How many of us have to ‘battle’ for services and resources, whilst watching our loved ones suffer? We may feel that our loved one is at risk of further harm through a lack of support or treatment. This is very stressful!
Compassion fatigue is a clinically recognised condition. It is not a failure, it is a response to overwhelming circumstances when caring for someone who has been traumatised. There are changes in the brain during compassion fatigue. The area of the brain which supports nurture and caring needs positive rapport and reciprocity to function well. If all our efforts are met with negative responses, or blank, numb, no response, it can inhibit our empathy. This is not your loved one’s fault and it is also not your fault. However, it is important that everyone agrees to make efforts to bring about positive change.
Steps Towards Self-Care for Parents
Compassion fatigue can be supported and, in some cases, even avoided by taking simple steps to acknowledge the stress you are under. Do not minimise or compare your situation with anyone else. This is about your unique stress load and how it effects your emotional, mind and body wellbeing. We can’t always tell where our tipping point will be. However, we can learn to recognise and respond to our own tell-tale signs that things are deteriorating.
If we had a broken leg we wouldn’t think twice about resting it. We may have physio, and ask others to give us a hand. Compassion fatigue is exactly the same. Sometimes we need to rest, get professional support or find a way to try things differently until things improve. Self-care for parents of children who have experienced trauma is crucial, because we need to stay emotionally and psychologically fit and well.
Take the time to build in rest and regenerative activities to your day. For example: Go out in nature, see friends, or find a therapist for yourself. Or simply make time each day to do something you enjoy. This gives your nervous system the positive input it needs to reset and experience safety and calm.
Positive Change as a Family
Supporting ourselves, whilst also supporting the recovery of our loved one, can require a family-culture change or shift of focus. Everyone can do their bit. Notice how you are all feeling. Encourage responsibility for each family member’s behaviours. Also be understanding and compassionate if you or your child feels overwhelmed. This is when seeking professional help can really support the whole family in making mental health and wellbeing plans for each family member and working together as a team.
If trauma is about disconnection and being stuck in the past, then healing is about reconnection and safety. From safety we can transform, going on to thrive as a family.
Mary-Joy Johnson is a Psychotherapist with a specialism in Psychotraumatology.
Wildways Therapy is her Private Practice where she delivers 1:1 and small group sessions. She blends psychotraumatology and working with horses (Equine Therapy) in natural spaces. She also offers online, 1:1 sessions, including Brainspotting for the containment and processing of Trauma, in particular during this period of instability due to the pandemic.
Mary-Joy has a special interest in supporting parents/carers/adopters and foster carers where the family are experiencing challenges due to the presence of Trauma/PTSD/Complex PTSD in their families.
She is a member of the National Council of Psychotherapists (NCP).
Mary-Joy is also a Programme Director for the charity, the Dare To Live Trust. It provides support for Military Veterans/Service Personnel, First Responders, Carers, Frontline Care Professionals and their families and Vulnerable Young Adults.
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