Hello dear friends!
What comes to your mind when you hear the words, “trauma” or “PTSD”? Probably some visions of war, combat, sexual assault, or childhood abuse, right? That’s what our society has ingrained in us, what we are supposed to think of when we hear those words, and what we should think of as “real” or “legitimate” trauma. We’re talking huge, life-changing events that permanently scar people, put them in long-term therapy, cause them to self-medicate, and in some tragic cases, choose to take their own lives.
Perhaps you’ve been through some tough stuff in your life, but never wanted to claim the label of “trauma” or think of yourself that way. Maybe you find yourself jumpy or thrown into panic attacks at certain triggers, but refuse to say you have PTSD. And that’s totally understandable. Our culture still has many big taboos surrounding those terms and who “gets” to use them. But here’s my thought: a lot of us have serious and legitimate trauma and many of us have PTSD because of it. We’ve never been on the front lines of a war, seen our friends killed in front of us, or been held captive and tortured. But we have been through devastating illness, and yes, that is a form of trauma, often a chronic and long-lived trauma that many never escape from.
* A quick note: saying that someone with a chronic illness has experienced trauma or PTSD does NOT in any way minimize or devalue those who have served in battle, been abused or tortured, or survived any other heinous attack. No, it is not the same, but it is traumatic nonetheless. Nobody is trying to steal the spotlight here...
Several years ago, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders- the same manual that once listed homosexuality as a disease…) had stated that for PTSD to occur, the person had to have experienced a stressor that was 'outside the range of normal human experience'. They thankfully omitted that silly phrase, and now accept many more common forms of trauma as being seriously damaging to the psyche and eligible for diagnosis and treatment. Still, I know many practicing psychiatrists and therapists do not take these “common” occurrences as seriously as they should, and many of us chronically ill folks are left feeling like we didn’t suffer enough to deserve real trauma counseling or treatment.
But I’m just going to come out and say it: illness is traumatic.
I acknowledge that I’ve lived a relatively sheltered and privileged life, and have never known the devastation of repeated abuse or combat, but I have ongoing PTSD, especially surrounding the onset of my illness and my serious relapse several years afterward. (this doesn’t include my divorce and bankruptcy)
The American Psychiatric Association outlines several criteria for clinical diagnosis of PTSD, starting with the actual trauma itself. It says that you have either: experienced a traumatic event yourself, witnessed one, learned that someone close to you has, or you’ve been repeatedly exposed to trauma.
I’d say many of us fall into the first category, and perhaps our caregivers and spouses fall into the third.
From there, it goes on to outline that you must experience one or more of the following for over one month after the trauma:
Reliving your trauma through painful memories or distressing mental images
Having nightmares about your trauma
Experiencing flashbacks to the actual trauma itself
Having severe emotional reactions to anything that reminds you of your trauma
I don’t know about you, but I have all of those…
Moving on, it also says you may experience any of these over one month after the traumatic event:
Avoiding situations or things that remind you of the traumatic event
Always feeling on guard and startling easily
Having trouble sleeping, relaxing, or concentrating
Losing interest in former fun activities and feeling disconnected from family and friends
Feeling a sense of numbness, irritability, or experiencing angry outbursts
When you look purely at the literature, it’s clear that all of us that live with debilitating or chronic illnesses have the potential for PTSD, and certainly many non-clinical manifestations of our trauma. The incredible amount of fear, isolation, anxiety, and hopelessness that accompanies illness can leave permanent scars and can be debilitating in and of itself!
So what can we do, as patients, as advocates, as healers?
1. Start talking about this issue
...and push for acknowledgement that chronic illnesses really truly are traumatic and can have lasting psychological and emotional consequences. Once the general public accepts this truth, we can have better visibility and treatment options! Educate your friends, family, and health providers.
2. Seek the appropriate help
There is no shame in seeing a therapist, counselor, or other psychological support professional. I don’t know where I’d be without the team of therapists I’ve had over the years. There are many that specialize in trauma and PTSD, and several are qualified to use therapies like EMDR. Search around in your area or within your insurance provider and start talking to someone who can really understand and help you move forward.
3. Know your triggers
And learn to work with them! Certain places, smells, or physical feelings might set you off or send you into full-blown panic. Identify these things and either try to avoid them (not always possible, of course) and/or start practicing techniques to get you through. This is a great place to use on-the-spot stress-relief practices like aromatherapy, breathwork, meditation or mindfulness, or other complementary therapies…
4. Include alternative tools
Nowadays, we have a wealth of amazing tools, to help those with PTSD and other mental health challenges. Going beyond traditional talk therapy, I highly recommend branching out to include holistic therapies like EFT/tapping, the Emotion Code, somatic experiencing, acupressure, and other similar tools.
5. Use the right foods & herbs
No, PTSD is not all mental- it is a very real physiological issue, with biological pathways and patterns. Thankfully, you can bring in the appropriate foods and herbal remedies to support your healing from trauma. These are usually the same foods and herbs used to treat the actual underlying illness too (how convenient!) Herbs like lemon balm, and all adaptogens are fantastic, and nourishing foods like fresh fruit, steamed potatoes, raw honey, and celery juice are key.
6. Practice radical self-care
Self-care not only helps lessen symptoms of PTSD, but also helps you practice advocating for what you need. Make time to eat healthy. Exercise as you are able, focusing on restorative and whole-body movement. Drink enough water and get plenty of sleep. Explore art therapy or creative outlets. And sometimes, treat yourself to a nice bubble bath, a mug of hot cocoa, or an afternoon at the movies.
7. Surround yourself with support
Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends and loved ones, especially when you are hurting or scared. Trauma and PTSD can still be taboo topics, but you might be surprised at the outpouring of love and support you’ll get when you are willing to be vulnerable. Make time to get together with people you like, and have a few good people that you know you can count on.
I know there is a lot more that can be said on this topic, but I’ll just wrap up here. I thought it was worth writing this post and putting it out there, not only for myself, but people like me that may feel silenced or misunderstood about their illness-related trauma.
With the right mixture of love, support, and understanding, we can move forward to make the most out of our lives, despite the things that have happened to us. No matter what you’re struggling with right now, just know that you are not alone.
We’re all on this healing adventure together.
~ Hoping you feel as well as possible ~
If you are struggling with serious depression or suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available via phone and online chat 24/7. You can call 1-800-273-TALK or click here to go to their website.