Supporting Grieving Children

Supporting Grieving Children

Helping your child process their grief now will have a lasting impact on not only them but the people they have relationships with in the future. It can have a tremendous effect on how they handle stress, loss, and other life events in the future.

Something about a new teacher, a loaded backpack, and crisp, white notebook paper signals a fresh start. But this isn’t true for all of our kids. The excitement of a new school year may be clouded by mixed emotions, especially still being on the heels of covid.

Many of our children have experienced loss. They may have lost loved ones or their sense of safety. They may have lost the family unit because of divorce or years of social interaction because of isolation. It’s important to know how to support grieving children in each of their losses, even if they are only perceivedlosses.

The grieving process varies by a child’s age, development, and personal experiences. Some children may seem unaffected by loss, while others openly express their feelings.

You can have one family of five children whose parents separated and then divorced. Even though these kids have had the same parents and lived in the same house, the way each of them experienced that life can be vastly different.

The older children may have seen it coming, may have wanted the fighting to stop, and feel a sense of relief. Those kiddos in the middle are watching the older siblings but can’t quite process what’s happening and feel pulled to take sides. Meanwhile, the youngest is still waiting for their mama and daddy to live together again.

Their feelings are all over the spectrum … relief, anger, bitterness, confusion, sadness, hurt, grief, fear, loneliness, and even shame. And they bring that with them onto the school bus and through the doors of every classroom. 

The following details will help you understand the difference between normal grief and traumatic grief and when to consider reaching out for help.

What is grief?

Grief is a natural, internal response to the loss of someone or something we care about. In children, grief can feel like a jumbled mix of emotions. They may feel sad and lonely as they miss their loved one and at the same time, angry and frustrated because they just don’t understand why or how something so awful could happen.

Our children need support to cope with grief. Young children may not be able to put complex emotions into words, so those big feelings are stuck in their bodies and minds which can increase feelings of isolation. According to Caitlin Coile, LPC-MHSP, Director of Children and Teens Program at the Refuge Center, the internal experience of a child might include:

  • Emotions such as anger, guilt, relief, fear, and sadness
  • Thoughts of trying to understand and believe what happened
  • Physical responses such as sleeplessness, stomach aches, headaches, and loss of appetite
  • Spiritual questioning about life’s meaning and the nature of God

What are the outward signs of grief in children?

Outward signs of grief vary for each person. Common themes in children include expressing mixed feelings, having difficulty concentrating or sleeping, or experiencing outbursts of crying or anger. Additionalnoticeable signs may reveal themselves in these areas:

  • Academics – Declining grades, incomplete work, memory loss, overachievement, language errors, inattentiveness, daydreaming
  • Behavioral – Noisy outbursts, disruptive behavior, non-compliance, risk-taking, hyperactive-like behavior, isolation, or withdrawal, need for attention
  • Social – Withdrawal from friends or activities, drug use, changing relationships, sexually acting out, stealing, difficulty being in groups
  • Physical – Stomach aches, headaches, heartaches, accidents, sleep difficulties, loss of appetite, low energy, skin condition, nausea, increased illness, and rapid heartbeat

You may only see kids display a few of these signs, experience signs at different times, or simply feel grief without any noticeable signs. Checking in with your child and looking out for signs of struggle will help you provide the support your child needs to begin healing. 

Keep in mind that your kids may not always want to talk to their parents—this can be especially true for teens. They may be more open to sharing their hearts with a coach, teacher, aunt, or uncle. If your kids have a safe person to share with, have a conversation with that person. The point is to have an adult who is positively involved in the grieving process.  

How can you support a grieving child?

Parents may choose to talk openly about loss from an early age which helps children understand loss as a part of life. Still, significant loss in childhood can lead to confusion and sadness that lasts for months or even years. Grief support for a child may include:

  • Providing a safe environment for active listening
  • Trying to understand your child’s experience
  • Being available when he or she needs you to be close
  • Setting age-appropriate limits on information related to the loss
  • Avoiding false hope of replacing what was lost
  • Encouraging activities that still bring joy

For children, loss can feel unexpected and intense. Whether they are four or fourteen, our kids may not know what to do with all that is swirling around inside them. There are books and online resources for caregivers to learn how to help children express and work through difficult or confusing emotions.

You should also be aware that all grief is not the same. It’s important for parents to know the signs of traumatic grief.

What is traumatic grief?

Traumatic grief refers to the experience after a highly traumatic loss, such as the death of a parent. Imagine losing the person who has shown you safety, provision, encouragement, and love. Now imagine being a kid who is often too young to fully grasp what is happening.

Bereavement can be traumatic in childhood for so many reasons.  Our children may experience more distress if someone close to them dies tragically rather than from natural causes. If significant distress occurs, the loss may lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Post-traumatic stress can play out in symptoms like these:

  • Lingering severe sadness and fear
  • Acting the event out when playing
  • Outbursts of anger and ongoing irritability
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Triggered by memories of the trauma
  • Continually negative feelings

Children who experience collective trauma may also feel traumatic grief. Collective trauma refers to a traumatic event that affects a large number of people, such as a tragedy at school or a pandemic. Parents should watch for signs of difficulty coping, such as bedwetting, nightmares, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. 

Since outward symptoms may not be present, it’s important to screen for traumatic grief by asking your child about feelings following a loss. If there are signs of traumatic or complicated grief, parents can assure their children that they are not alone and provide the support needed to heal.

Is my child depressed?

Although grief and depression have similarities, there are key differences. Grief is a natural reaction to a significant loss that usually lasts for about six months or longer if the person is unable to process the loss adequately. Depression is a disorder that causes significant problems with mood, energy, sleep, and appetite and can last for many years.

When should you seek professional help?

While grieving is a healthy response to loss, supporting someone through grief can be difficult. You may have no idea how to help your child on your own. Signs of complicated grief include:

  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
  • Chronic physical symptoms without medical cause
  • Depression with impaired self-esteem
  • Persistent denial of the loss
  • Alcohol and/or drug use
  • Intense feelings of guilt or responsibility
  • Major and continued changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • Unsafe/harmful risk-taking behavior

     Helping your child process their grief now will have a lasting impact on not only them but the people they have relationships with in the future. It can have a tremendous effect on how they handle stress, loss, and other life events in the future. Learning how to untangle thoughts and feelings as a child teaches them not to fear overwhelming emotions and empowers our kids to communicate what is going on inside of them.  

If you think your child is experiencing traumatic or complicated grief, you might consider seeking professional help. At the Refuge Center, we offer many resources to help adults and children walk toward healing.

And don’t forget to register for Live Intentionally 2022.  The topic this year is EQUIP: The Tools You Need to Address the Teen and Mental Health Crisis.  Subject such a childhood grief and loss will be presented.

 

 

Sources

https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-And-Grief-008.aspx

https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline

https://childmind.org/article/helping-children-deal-grief/

https://childrengrieve.org/resources/about-childhood-grief

https://www.kidshealth.org.nz/bereavement-reactions-children-young-people-age-group

https://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/managing-emotions/grief-and-loss/helping-grieving-children-and-teenagers

https://www.verywellfamily.com/signs-of-grief-in-children-and-how-to-help-them-cope-4174245

https://www.dougy.org/grief-support-resources/kids

Blog written by Masters Level Intern, Lindrel Moates and edited by Shelby Renee Rawson

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The Church and Mental Health

The Church and Mental Health

The truth is, we all need a safe place to untangle our narratives, and therapy can be windshield wipers for the soul.

What is Mental Health, really?

“She has mental problems.” 

How many times have you heard words like this being said about someone? Or how many times have yousaid something like that? We often say things like that without realizing what we’re actually perpetuating. 

For decades, the topic of mental health has carried with it shame and stigma. People have thought someone with “mental health issues” is broken or having a breakdown. We have pictured someone we think of as crazy sitting in a “mental hospital.” And we fear what we don’t understand.

We don’t know what we don’t know. 

Mental health is actually how we think, feel, and act. It is how we handle relationships and stress. It’s the story we tell ourselves about how others feel about us. It is the little voice inside our heads that has been talking to us for as long as we can remember—whether that voice is good, bad, or somewhere in between.

Have you ever had a business deal fall through and at 2 am lay awake thinking, Am I a failure? 

Have you ever had a relationship fail and found yourself wrestling with the question, Was I not enough?

Lost someone that mattered very much and wondered, How can I go on without them? 

Had a teenager who was struggling with self-harm or an eating disorder and you felt at a loss to know how to help them? 

These questions and the way we navigate them are our mental health. It’s not so much about what happens to us, as much as how we interpret what happens to us.  

There is no person whose income is high enough, whose job is important enough, whose talent is great enough … to prevent them from coming to grips with these questions. There are also many things in our formative years that can impact our emotional well-being—addiction, abuse, neglect, etc. These issues do not discriminate. 

 Mental health is not about being broken. It’s not a niche issue. And it’s not something that only applies to some people. This is a topic that is applicable to 100% of humans. That means it applies to me, your best friend, your child, your pastor, your parents, and you.

 

How did the pandemic impact our mental health?

Through the pandemic, we have seen an increase in relational poverty, anxiety, depression, grief and loss, helplessness, loneliness, reminders of past trauma, toxic reactivity, substance abuse, eating disorders, suicidality, self-harm, and crisis in marriage. Every single one of those things directly affects our mental health.

Globally, we’ve all just lived through 800 days of hard. We have experienced a shared traumatic reality, which means that our neighbors and friends likely had less capacity for empathy when we needed them. 

It really is true that “the body keeps the score.” Our nervous systems have been impacted in significant ways. And for many people, the challenges exceeded their coping skills. “Grace tanks” ran very low.

So from a data perspective … In 2021, Psychology Today reported that:

  • Anxiety disorders affect 40 million U.S. adults each year
  • Some 16.1 million Americans age 18 and up experience Major Depressive Disorder annually
  • Eight million adults live with PTSD in a given year

 

Young people are feeling it, too.

American adolescence is undergoing a drastic change. Three decades ago, the gravest public health threats to teenagers in the United States came from binge drinking, drunken driving, teenage pregnancy, and smoking. But today, this isn’t the case. These have since fallen sharply, replaced by a new public health concern—soaring rates of mental health disorders.

To this point, in two articles, The New York Times reported that:

“In 2019, 13 percent of adolescents reported having a major depressive episode, a 60 percent increase from 2007. Emergency room visits by children and adolescents in that period also rose sharply for anxiety, mood disorders and self-harm … 

And for people ages 10 to 24, suicide rates, stable from 2000 to 2007, leaped nearly 60 percent by 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The decline in mental health among teenagers was intensified by the Covid pandemic but predated it, spanning racial and ethnic groups, urban and rural areas and the socioeconomic divide.”

The New York Times, ‘It’s Life or Death’: The Mental Health Crisis Among U.S. Teens

 In a rare public advisory, in December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General warned of a “devastating” mental health crisis among adolescents. Numerous hospital and doctor groups have called it a national emergency, citing rising levels of mental illness, a severe shortage of therapists and treatment options, and insufficient research to explain the trend.

These “statistics” are our students, our nieces and nephews, our grandchildren, the kid bagging our groceries or making our iced coffee. These numbers are describing our children

Of all of the painful stats, perhaps the most troubling, is that the suicide rate in Tennessee is climbing. Things are trending … in the wrong direction.

When you get inside the most current suicide stats – you see that suicide is 4x more likely to impact men. In fact, if you are a white male in your 30s and 40s, you are at the highest risk by a long way.

Life is consistently challenging us, and when we look at the latest data we’re seeing that life for many in our quasi-post-pandemic world can be almost unbearable.

 

Why should the church care about this issue?

Mental health is a human issue. We all have hurts, habits, and hang-ups. Every one of us will face hardship and suffering at some point in our lifetime. It’s unavoidable.

Churches generally have impactful missions programs, focusing on the “least, the last, the lost.” 

I would contend that our buildings and services are filled with people who look “fine” and seem “great” but are feeling like the “the least, the last, and the lost” on the INSIDE. 

Marital crisis, anxiety and panic, addiction, loneliness, grief … These are issues every bit inside our church walls as they are outside our church walls. Even pastors are not exempt. Twenty-three percent of pastors have personally struggled with mental health conditions.

The church community CAN act as a holy place of refuge for those who are suffering emotionally.

The Bible is full of verses that tell us God is our hiding place. Psalm 27:5 says, “For in the day of trouble He will conceal me in His tabernacle; in the secret place of His tent He will hide me; He will lift me up on a rock.” THIS is who God is. 

When you feel lost, when you feel less than or dead last, sometimes the only thing you want to do is hide away. And what better place to hide than in the shadow of the wings of the One who loves you and cares for you more than you could ever ask or imagine? He knows your every thought and no tear you shed goes unnoticed.

The church should be a place where we feel seen.

Being with Jesus—in relationship with him, in his presence—does not mean we won’t suffer. His own disciples struggled deeply with anxiety and self-doubt and one even took his own life. Abundant life in Christ is not about living without pain or having all the answers or cures. It is about trusting that God and all his provisions will be enough for us to not only survive but thrive.

We can encourage those who suffer to seek the help they need from professionals who have the expertise to provide it. And by this we can declare the truth that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

 In the church, we need more real, open, honest conversations. This strengthens our emotional muscles. When we listen to others in their pain, it gives them dignity. Telling our story with safe people begins to give our pain purpose and meaning.

 

How does the church know when to refer for professional counseling services?

 Counseling is a space to process the burdens, barriers, and the shame stories of our experiences. It’s meant to be a place to become free of bondage.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1) 

Counseling is for people:

  • who have tried typical coping skills and are still “stuck” in habits, relational conflicts, shame, blind spots, etc.
  • who are struggling to cope (not eating, sleeping well, excessive anger, depression, panic attacks, etc.) or are in acute grief
  • who want to improve their relational skills by being proactive
  • and who feel alone in their suffering or who feel too much shame to tell their story with anyone else outside the parameters of confidentiality.

The truth is, we all need a safe place to untangle our narratives, and therapy can be windshield wipers for the soul.

If we don’t transform our pain we will transmit it.

Counseling can help us achieve congruence where our “insides match our outsides,” where actions and values align. Without congruence, we lack peace.

Counseling can also help people explore their spiritual brokenness. Psalm 139: 23-24 says,  “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” 

Some people are terrified to think that God will “search” them. In the deepest places of their soul, they consider the choices they have made in their life and wonder, Does God like me? Will He be angry with me? Will he reject me? Is he too busy with someone else? Will I be able to hear him if I seek him?  

Counseling can be a place to process these fears and any trauma that may stand in the way of a full and rich relationship with God. You are not alone in your questioning and doubting. Sitting with somebody who hears you and sees your hard, your hurt, your unspoken struggles can open your heart to healing in ways that you can’t do in solitude and isolation.

 

In addition to scripture, what are the phrases Christians and church staff can offer to someone who is hurting?

Being a safe place for hurting people looks like this: 

  • Tell me more about that …
  • You are important in my life.
  • I am so glad you are here
  • What is happening at home?
  • I can’t begin to imagine what you are going through, but I am here for you.
  • You matter.
  • If you want to talk about how you are feeling, I will listen—No matter how long it takes.
  • If you don’t want to talk, I am happy to sit here in silence with you, or just let you have a space to cry. I am so glad to be with you.
  • You are not a burden to me.
  • I don’t understand everything about how feelings work, but I know mine always seem to be changing.
  • It sounds like you are feeling hopeless. Would you mind if I carried hope for you for a while?
  • I am so sorry for your loss.
  • I wish I had the right words, just know that I care.

 

What are some things the church can do about the mental health crisis?

 #1 Host and engage in QPR or Mental Health First Aid Trainings

Most of us would know how to help if we saw someone having a heart attack—we’d start CPR, or at the very least, call 9-1-1. But too few of us would know how to respond if we saw someone having a panic attack or if we were concerned that someone might be showing signs of self-harm, or addiction. 

QPR: Question, Persuade, Refer. What questions to ask if you are concerned someone may harm themselves or have suicidal thoughts, steps to encourage them to seek help, and referrals to get them the support they need. (You can do a 60 min training online or free.) 

Mental Health First Aid: Mental Health First Aid teaches you how to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders. It takes the fear and hesitation out of starting conversations about mental health and substance use problems by improving understanding and providing an action plan that teaches people to safely and responsibly identify and address a potential mental illness or substance use disorder. 

When more people are equipped with the tools they need to start a dialogue, more people can get the help they need. Mental Health First Aiders can even save lives. This is an eight-hour training and can be done in person or online.

#2 Host Mental Health Talks/Q&A’s (trauma, depression, marriage, grief and loss, media, etc.) This can consist of live or recorded sessions.

#3 Supporting the work and initiatives of local counseling groups. Providing funding for congregants to get mental health support, seeing counseling agencies as missional, etc.

#4 Offering your space for local support groups (grief and loss, sexual trauma, men’s emotions, etc.)

#5 Decreasing the stigma through shared or related resources in your own bulletins/social media accounts, etc. especially suicide hotlines (800) 273-8255)

#6 Get the support YOU need. Every leader needs a safe place. DO YOUR OWN WORK! This is not intended to be another laundry list of things added to your plate. This is about living a life of freedom and spaciousness so you can offer love and care from a place of FULLNESS and overflow. Be the healthiest version of you that YOU can be (spiritually, emotionally, physically, etc.) 

Be intentional about having leaders, professionals, and friends in your life who ask you hard questions, give you feedback about your blind spots, and who challenge and encourage you. These are your 24/7 “iron sharpens iron” people. (Psalm 27:17) This might be a counselor, spiritual director, pastor, small group leader, Life Coach, Enneagram teacher, Celebrate Recovery or AA, other men’s groups, a learner (reading, podcasts), or your daily practices (such as the Examen, Headspace, etc.) 

Leaders must embrace and model this first. We can’t give what we don’t have. We can’t give help if we can’t ask for it. Fundamentally, we must first be a safe/secure place for ourselves before we can offer that to others.

It’s time to shift the mental health mindset. 

It’s time to bring what has been hidden in darkness into the light. 

And it’s time to accept the beautiful hard truth about mental health. 

We can do better.

We can be better.

Blog written by Co-Founder and Executive Director, Amy Alexander, LMFT and edited by Shelby Renee Rawson

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Crisis: Knowing When to Call

Crisis: Knowing When to Call

Simply put, a crisis is when you need serious and urgent help from others because your own ways of coping are not effective enough at the moment.

The Refuge Center for Counseling Tweet

On July 16th, the new number for the mental health crisis changed to an easy to remember three digit number, 988.  So many people hear about crisis resources and helplines, but never believe they will be in the situation where they need these resources for themselves. Even the word “crisis” elicits all sorts of ideas from different people. Maybe you think about someone who is suicidal or someone who seems “out of control.”

While these are common and important examples of what a crisis might be, there are other types of crises that you may have not considered. A family who is going hungry due to lack of food resources, an elderly person in need of healthcare access, or someone who needs to get connected to metal healthcare providers are all additional examples of what a crisis may look like.

When you experience a crisis, you may feel certain sensations in your body. Your breathing may be strained, your heart may race, or your chest may feel heavy. Internally, you may feel confused, angry, helpless, shame/guilt, vulnerable, anxious, or hopeless. It may be difficult to self-regulate during a crisis and bring your body back to its natural equilibrium state.

Simply put, a crisis is when you need serious and urgent help from others because your own ways of coping are not effective enough at the moment.

Many external and internal factors can lead to a moment of crisis. Perceived loss and traumatic experiences can cause someone to depend on coping and problem-solving skills to regulate. When these skills are not sufficient for the individual to return back to a state of being emotionally regulated, this increases the individual’s anxiety and fear. Often in this elevated state, external regulators such as substances, other people, or belief systems may be utilized. An individual usually comes out of crisis once the situation or internal experience is changed in some way. Making a call is one of the best ways to deescalate the situation.

Luckily, making the call in a crisis has become simpler and easier than before. Tennessee offers two numbers, the 211 helpline and 988 hotline.

When to call 211

The new Tennessee helpline is now active and ready to provide callers with the resources they need. The 211 helpline is active 24/7, 365 days a year. The professionals on the other end have access to 10,000 health and human service programs, so you can be pointed towards the arms of others waiting to help. If you need immediate food, water, shelter, or safety, call 211. If you need housing or employment assistance, call 211. If you are struggling with your mental health, but not in crisis, call 211 to get mental health resources.

When to call 988

Another important three-digit number to remember is the 988 Mental Health Crisis and Suicide Hotline. If you or anyone you know is in crisis, especially if that includes considering suicide, calling this number will connect you with trained mental health professionals to deescalate the situation. Depending on the intensity of the need, the professional on the other end of the line will help walk you through your moment of crisis, refer you to local mental health providers, or provide you with immediate emergency services. The 988 line is there to serve you no matter if you are experiencing a panic attack or actively wanting to complete suicide. 988 also works for text or you can even chat online at 988lifeline.org.

Regardless of your circumstances, if you find yourself in a situation and don’t know the way out, just dial three numbers and speak with someone who can offer a helping hand. You don’t deserve to sit in the darkness alone, there is hope at the other end of the helpline.

If you are unsure if you are having a crisis, it never hurts to call 211 or 988. There is no shame in saying “I need help.”

If you do not believe you are in crisis and would like to get connected to mental health professionals, The Refuge Center for Counseling is also waiting with open arms. To make the first step and schedule an appointment, call 615-591-5262.

If you would like additional information on the new 211 helpline, you can find it here https://www.unitedwaygreaternashville.org/211-helpline/. If you would like additional information on the new 988 mental health crisis hotline, please visit https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/988.

Blog written by Master’s Level Intern, Madison Josey and edited by Weatherly Hulsey

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Healing and PTSD

Healing and PTSD

"Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being. " -Bessel Van Der Kolk

I’m fine. Everything is fine. If I just close my eyes and take some deep breaths my heart will stop racing. I’ll just keep rubbing my palms on my jeans. This is ridiculous. 

 

It was only a text. Just a stupid text. So why are my breaths so shallow? Why is the room spinning? 

 

She curls up on her bed, hugging her knees to her chest. Raggedy, guttural crying only adds to the shaking. Nobody is there to hold her. Her children hesitate on the other side of her bedroom door, listening to their mom’s stifled sobs.

 

What is wrong with me? This is not a big deal. I wasn’t beaten. I wasn’t raped. I wasn’t tortured or shot at … It was just a text from him … the man I finally walked away from. 

 

I am fine. I will get over this.

 

But she wasn’t fine. She was not okay. No matter how much she tried to convince herself, no matter how many times she lied to her heart, she was in no way fine. And she would definitely not be getting over anything … 

 

Not without real help. 

 

Yet she didn’t really know what was happening to her. Clearly, panic had gripped her body and her mind. Her trigger was obvious—the text. But why did just seeing his name on her phone screen cause an uncontrollable visceral reaction?

 

Because this is the veiled face of a PTSD flashback. 

 

This is the face of PTSD that people don’t recognize. It’s the face that you walk around with every day, going to work, cooking dinner, running errands, grabbing dinner with friends. It’s the face that smiles, laughs, lends a listening ear, and offers a kind word. This is a face that just keeps on going, day in and day out. 

 

The feeling of anxiety and tension, staying in high-alert mode, blaming yourself, waking throughout the night, crying yourself to sleep, crying in the shower, avoiding certain places, feeling irritable, startling easily, and feeling overwhelmed have just become your norm. You’re used to it. 

 

It’s just part of your life.

 

And it’s just a little thing called Complex PTSD. C-PTSD is sneaky. It tucks itself away in the corners of your mind and recesses of your body, keeping just enough of a grip on you that you’re not quite sure it’s there … Until some outwardly benign thing comes into view. A phrase, a sound, a look, a song on the radio, a particular restaurant, a simple text. Any of those things might trigger your body and mind so sharply that you feel like you have no control over what’s happening. You feel like something else has overtaken you and you’ve become a prisoner in your skin.

 

When we think of post-traumatic stress, we picture Vietnam War vets who are re-traumatized by loud noises and experience nightmares that cause them to cry out in their sleep. We think of people who have survived a mass shooting. We think of women who survived sexual assault. That’s because we associate PTSD with major traumas. 

 

But there is another common cause of PTSD called complex post traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) which is made up of “little t” traumas that happen over and over again. These cumulative, unresolved traumas, like bullying, neglect from a parent or partner, or rejection or abandonment from social supports. These are the kind of traumas that somebody may have told you are no big deal, but our little traumas matter. And healing from those little traumas is possible. 

In the book, The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk highlights four fundamental truths about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and healing:

  • “Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being. 
  • Language gives us the power to change ourselves and others by communicating our experiences, helping us to define what we know, and finding a common sense of meaning. 
  • We have the ability to regulate our own physiology, including some of the so-called involuntary functions of the body and brain, through basic activities such as breathing, moving, and touching; and 
  • We can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive.” 

These truths are meant to help people suffering from PTSD to own their healing journey and become a participant in the process, rather than being a passive patient. They point your healing journey inward and place the keys to healing in the hands of those who are suffering and their community of support. 

 

Relationships and Community

 Dr. Van Der Kolk’s first point claims that while humans have the capacity to deeply wound one another, they also have the radical ability to help in the healing process. This is consistent with the view that humans are highly relational beings, and that when our needs cannot be met by others we are met with suffering. From birth, we cry out to others to fulfill our needs. Unfortunately, we learn as we grow that our cries are not always met with the comfort our souls crave. When our sense of identity and hope is marred by the hands of another, we may run far away from relationships and cling to the fear that we’ll just be wounded again.  Self-protection drives us to make vows to decrease our vulnerability, hoping to never experience the trauma, heartbreak, or suffering again. The ironic thing is that when we decrease our vulnerability, we increase our shame. And shame? Shame weighs on you like a wet blanket.

 

When others see us just as we are, that allows us to understand and embrace ourselves. The problem is that when we are hurting we believe we’re alone. We might know that we need relationship, but we don’t know who would be safe to talk to and let our guard down. You may have tried this. You may have offered your heart on a silver platter only to have it sprinkled with empty platitudes, promised prayers, and a good old broom to sweep it under the rug. If this has happened to you, it is awful. It is not okay.  And those are not your people. 

 

There is healing when you are seen and heard. There is healing when you find a safe person who allows you to lay your burdens down and rest awhile. But it starts with our own vulnerability. Start with one person you already trust or suspect is trustworthy–it could be a parent, partner, therapist, teacher, coworker, new or old friend, or anyone willing to listen. Start by asking if they’re open to a conversation and if so, take the risk of admitting the hurt and asking for what you need. You may not know what you need yet. That is okay. Your healing is worth it. 

 

Name it to tame it.

 

If you’ve experienced trauma, you may have an awareness of deep suffering but you may not grasp why or even how you are suffering. You may not even know how to put it into words. It may be painful, uncomfortable, or scary to speak the pain into existence. Remember, things fester in the dark. Dr. Van Der Kolk hints at this idea when he describes how language can help us make meaning out of our painful experiences. When you don’t know how to name your suffering, it can feel wildly overwhelming. Shame may kick in and whisper that there is something innately wrong with you and that’s why you have issues. But the truth is that your mind, body, and soul are having reactions to the unresolved pain in your life. 

 

Naming your pain may cause intense reactions such as emotional distress, flashbacks, or physiological symptoms such as shaking, sweating, etc. Having a trusted and qualified mental health professional to come alongside you and address the root of the pain can lead to greater freedom.  If you have PTSD, confiding in a mental health professional can help you understand how your trauma affects your life in the present and how to move forward. And wouldn’t it be amazing to be unstuck? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a path forward and walk on it?

 

Self- Regulation

When you are a victim of trauma, whether big or small, you may struggle to function in your everyday life no thanks to intense fight-or-flight responses to normal stimuli, like seeing an abuser’s name. Many combat veterans with PTSD are triggered by sights and sounds like fireworks. A therapist can help you identify your triggers and regulate your fight-or-flight responses in healthy ways. The good news is that there are quite a few ways to interrupt your fight-or-flight response. In Dr. Van Der Kolk’s third point, he states that involuntary actions such as breathing, moving, or touching can help regulate our nervous systems. 

 

You may have already discovered that deep breathing helps when triggers or anxious thoughts arise. When you take long and deep breaths, you communicate to the body that it is safe, that no threat is present. Breathing in, holding it, and slowly exhaling causes your heart rate to slow and the body returns to a sense of safety. 

 

Breathing may not do the trick. You may need to move by doing yoga or going for a walk. Getting physically active can be like balm for an overactive mind and body. Studies have shown that walking, or any bilateral movement, stimulates both sides of the brain. This paves the way for greater emotional processing, allowing your thoughts and feelings to become more coherent. 

 

When walking is not available, some people find tapping on both sides of the body provides similar effects. Whether you choose mindful breathing exercises, gentle movement, or both–utilizing these mechanisms can help calm a heightened nervous system and communicate peace and safety to the body. 

Safe Environments

 

Along with internal work, changing your environment can bring positive change when you have PTSD. Dr. Van Der Kolk emphasizes that social conditions play a large role in creating safe environments for people with PTSD. Participating in theater is a useful tool. People may come in highly unattuned to their bodies and uncertain how to engage with others in the space, so the director intentionally works to slow things down. 

 

A director who works with traumatized teens described to Dr. Van Der Kolk how he structures his theater practices. He first gets the participants up and walks around the room. He uses small steps to create safety. This example shows the need for those with PTSD to engage in social settings slowly and carefully.  Beginning with something like a theater, music, or dance class may help build social skills and awareness that translate to real-world scenarios. Additionally, utilizing the safe space of a therapist’s office may be a good first step if a class with other people seems too daunting. 

 

If you are a victim of trauma, big or small, one or many, know that healing is possible. There is no way to remove your past, but there is a way forward. You are not what happened to you. You are not your past. Your heart is worth healing. 

 

Here at the Refuge Center, we see you and want to honor your unique and valid needs. If you feel that the next step in your healing journey may be to reach out to a mental health professional for help, we would love to meet with you and walk alongside you in the process. You may reach us at 615-591-5262 to take the first steps. 

References: 

A., V. der K. B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books.

Blog written by Master’s Level Intern, Madison Josey and edited by Shelby Rawson

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