For the past few months, I have been taking some courses to get certified as a Mental Health Coach. One of the topics covered was helping someone who has experienced Complex Trauma. The most common type of trauma we hear about is Acute PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) which is a result of a single incident such as those experienced by war veterans or victims of mass shootings. However Complex Trauma is one that occurs over an extended amount of time like those who suffer child abuse or, in my case, medical trauma from chronic illnesses. In most instances trauma is from an external source for example physical abuse, but with chronic disease the source is internal; therefore, it cannot be escaped as it is part of the person. In some cases Complex PTSD can also exasperate symptoms of the ongoing illness. This makes everything more difficult to manage.
From reading my blog, one will know that I have lived with some type of illness since birth. More recently in adulthood I struggle with Thyroid disease, Psoriatic Arthritis, Fibromyalgia and Depression added to my diagnosis of Diabetes. It has been a long battle to learn how to create a new “normal” life while balancing multiple diseases.
I can recall symptoms of PTSD in my teenage years: having flashbacks of instances from when I was hospitalized as a child, I had low self-esteem because I felt different from my peers, and I was always waiting for the next “bad” thing to happen to me (hypervigilance). Looking back at my younger years I can acknowledge that I stayed in a state of fear and denial. I tried to push my emotions aside and hid my “shame” from others while fearing the future. Finally in adulthood, after my second Depression episode, things began to unravel and I started psychotherapy which helped restore balance to my life allowing me to move past the feelings of being scarred.
Here are the steps I went through to manage the traumatic symptoms:
- GET HELP
Go to a medical doctor and mental health therapist to learn how to manage your illnesses . This includes exploring medicinal options, educating yourself about your illnesses, and engaging in mental health therapy. I will say the best choice I made was going to a therapist. Yes, medication is important to balance the chemicals in the body but therapy is needed to work through the emotional part of on-going illness. Having a diagnosis that changes how you live is a difficult process of adaption. Therapy can provide the tools needed to succeed and put the puzzle back together.
- KEEP CONNECTED TO OTHERS
I struggled when I had Depression to keep engaged with others. Because of my other illnesses socializing was exhausting for me. However it is important to congregate with others to help maintain a sense of belonging and connection to society.
- INCLUDE YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHER AND SUPPORT SYSTEM IN YOUR TREATMENT PLAN
I found it is important to include your spouse and others who are in your support system in the treatment process. When I was going through the toughest times the past several years, I always had my “happy face” mask on hiding all my emotions (however not the literal mask we wear in the current COVID-19 pandemic). Even though my family and friends could not comprehend what I was experiencing, it helped to know I was still important and cared for by them. I was able to take my mask off with them and express my thoughts and fears. They provided additional encouragement and assistance for me to accomplish my goals.
- UNDERSTAND THAT HEALING IS A PROCESS, PACE YOURSELF
It has been said that it takes about 21 days to create a new habit. How long do you think it would take to change every aspect of your life? For me it has taken about 10 years. My approach was to take one day at a time. Focus on one aspect individually using a step-by-step process. Be patient with yourself and others!
- ENGAGE IN A HOBBY
Engaging in a creative process has been shown to broaden one’s attention field. In order to be creative one needs to focus on current world events . Furthermore, focusing on a particular project allows one to experience the here and now rather than pondering the future. In addition it helps to provide feelings of accomplishment and relaxation. Pick something fulfilling for example: painting, gardening, or volunteering at a soup kitchen.
- LIVE IN THE MOMENT
Try not to worry about what is going to happen next. Focus on what is happening right now. We cannot change the past or predict the future. We can only live fully if we are present in the current moment. Mindfulness meditation is an excellent technique I learned to train my mind to concentrate on the current situation and moreover it assists with decreasing stress.
- HAVE FAITH
Living with chronic conditions can feel like one is moving through a revolving door. Pain, feelings and symptoms will come and go continually. One thing that I can depend on to be constant is God’s presence. My faith gives me peace and comfort during the most trying times. Knowing that one day I will face everlasting life with God is what helps me persist and keep moving forward.
Staying present and continuing to be engaged in life can help dispel the negative effects of complex trauma. Although one with Chronic Illness may not ever live without distress, one can learn how to manage it. Management takes persistence but faith can move you forward.