If you parent a child with special needs or work in a care giving capacity, more than likely you have experienced Secondary Trauma. Often called Secondary PTSD, secondary trauma is when you are exposed indirectly to trauma through hearing about the firsthand trauma experiences of others. In this post we explore 5 realistic steps to overcome secondary trauma starting today.
For more information about secondary trauma, including a link to a quiz for secondary trauma, please read the post Do You Have Secondary Traumatic Stress?
Today I am honored to host guest writer Marcy Pusey, who has expertise and personal experience in the area of secondary trauma. Be sure to keep reading to the end because we are hosting a give-away to get a FREE copy of Marcy’s book!
When Secondary Trauma Hits Hard
by Marcy Pusey
I walked into the doctor’s office. My six-year-old wore a princess dress and rain boots. I couldn’t care today about what she was wearing into a professional office. And this is partly what brought me through the doors.
I began to explain my symptoms, knowing we’d already done the blood work and the pee work, only to come back with a big stamp of “perfect health.” Which would normally be great news… except that I didn’t feel perfectly healthy.
“I put in one load of laundry and I’m exhausted,” I told the doctor. “I have to sleep a few hours every day to make up for one small task. Everyone tells me I’m just a normal, tired mama, but this doesn’t feel right.”
Tears fell as I explained that I’m raising a difficult child and I especially need to be rested when he gets home each afternoon. My sweet daughter patted my shoulder. “It’s okay, Mommy,” as the tears fell and the explanations came.
The doctor took my hands and said, “You are a GOOD mother!” (which was saying a lot considering what my kiddo was wearing and my emotional state at the moment!)
She prescribed me a low dose of Citalopram. “Will this help with my fatigue?” I asked her, not really knowing what it was. She nodded and I was on my way.
It wasn’t until I began taking the anti-depressant that I realized how far from my “normal” I had fallen. While my only hope had been energy to get through the day, I suddenly realized that I was thinking of my own death a lot less, crying less often, less sensitive to comments or insensitivities of others, able to complete full tasks, able to make decisions again… the list grew.
We were also coming to realize that our fost-adopt son, who we’d been raising for 8 years at the time, had Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). This led me to information on secondary trauma.
If Primary trauma means a highly stressful event that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope then secondary trauma is the emotional and physiological response of distress to the firsthand experiences of another’s primary trauma.
I read symptoms of secondary trauma like social withdrawal, irritability, difficulty problem solving, feeling of powerlessness, hyperarousal or hypervigilence, feeling numb, decrease in pleasurable activities, hopelessness – and saw myself reflected back.
I love what Dr. Rachel Remen says: “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.”
We need to expect that we will be affected by the trauma of our children. I’ve come to believe that parenting children of trauma often incurs a combination of both secondary and primary trauma. Not only do we hurt for the pain our children experienced, but we live firsthand with the ways that pain manifests in their day-to-day lives.
In my book, Reclaiming Hope: Overcoming the Challenges of Parenting Foster and Adopted Children, I include Shelly’s experience: “The secondary trauma of foster and adoptive parents is real. Some of us have been bit, kicked, slapped, punched, hit, and/or emotionally assaulted because our children can go to such a scary place of fear. We witness it and internalize things as parents. It’s so hard to see a child you love so much hurting. It’s no fault of their own, but you feel the calling to help heal those wounds you had nothing to do with yourself” (page 184).
And sometimes living under trauma for so long, staying hyper-vigilant for so long, leads to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when they leave. When my son moved out at the age of 18, I noticed my stomach would flip around the time he would have been coming home from school. I had nightmares for weeks that he would just show up unannounced at our house.
There’s not enough conversation about the forms of trauma we experience in loving our kids. (So thank you, Sara, for stepping into that conversation and adding your voice!)
So what do we do?
We have to recognize the symptoms for ourselves and for others in our children’s circles of care. Not every person responds to trauma the same. Being attentive to ourselves and others is important. It’s like they say before take-off: “In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you… Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally… If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.”
When life is decompressing, put on your mask, find your normal breathing, then help the person requiring assistance beside you.
- Because you’re no help to anyone passed out on the floor.
- Or in bed with fatigue.
- Or addicted to some emotion-numbing activity or behavior.
- Or disconnected from your relationships.
- Or debilitated by headaches or stomach aches.
- Or isolated by shame and fear and hopelessness.
“If we don’t make this important, even in the midst of total familial chaos, we can expect mental and physical exhaustion, the unhealthy use of substances to combat stress and to self-comfort, disturbed sleep, feeling numb and distanced from life, feeling less satisfied by work and parenting, irritability and moodiness, physical complaints such as stomachache or headache, intrusive thoughts, chronic fatigue, sadness, anger, poor concentration, second guessing, detachment, emotional exhaustion, fearfulness, shame, and more” (Reclaiming Hope, p186).
5 Realistic Steps to Overcome Secondary Trauma Starting Today
Individuals who have the healthiest and greatest recovery practice a combination of the following:
1. Seek Therapeutic support.
This was crucial for both my marriage and ourselves individually. We had not fully realized the affect of trauma on our marriage until completing an entire year of marital counseling. It saved us.
2. Seek Medical Support (with doctor recommendation, as necessary).
I’m not a big fan of medication, and being handed a prescription of anti-depressants for my “fatigue” was a challenge to my underlying notions about the kind of person who needs medication. I’m a clinical counselor and fully support medicine as needed… for others.
Once the Citalopram kicked in, I thought, “Oh man… I needed to start this years ago.” After a year and a half on Citalopram, I was able to wean off and function “normally.” While I’ve never returned to my full pre-crash capacity, I’ve learned how to live within my new “normal.”
3. Seek Support from Community.
Connect with support groups in your local area or online. I’m a part of a few Facebook support groups for parents of children with Reactive Attachment Disorder. This has been like putting on my oxygen mask and breathing normally. In these safe places, I’m surrounded by people who “get it.” Many cities have support groups for foster parents, adoptive parents, parents kiddos with RAD, parents of children with disabilities, etc.
4. Balancing Life and Energy.
You may find that your capacity just isn’t the same. Your energy doesn’t last as long.
Have an honest conversation with yourself about what actually feels manageable for this season of your life- and cut the rest out. The voices in your head might start telling you that you’re weak. Not good enough. A failure.
Be sure to tell them to shove it. This is your life to live and trying to live in someone else’s way will only lead to a bigger more painful crash.
5. Practice Self Care.
I know self care is “in” right now. But it should be.
Self care is important and we’ve neglected it for a long time. I like to define self care as knowing your capacity and giving yourself permission to flourish WITHIN that space.
Find life-giving activities in your life and participate in them. Maybe you need to take a nap instead of wash the dishes right now. Or take a morning with friends.
I see self care as coming in two main parts: Basic and Deep.
Basic self-care includes things like getting enough sleep, exercise, staying hydrated, having hobbies, community, and respite.
Deep self-care involves knowing your capacity and staying within it, setting good boundaries, creating margin in your day for whatever you may need spontaneously, being aware of trauma symptoms, and having mental health support.
I talk a lot more about Secondary Trauma and self care in my book, Reclaiming Hope.
Marcy Pusey, CRC, is a clinical counselor, writer, wife, and mommy living the serendipitous moments of God’s divine intentions. Over the last seventeen years, Marcy has worked with children, adolescents, adults, families, and couples through private practices, group homes, foster family agencies, community based services, and wrap-around programs. Marcy’s writing has appeared in newspapers, magazines, blog posts, children’s books, and books for adults.
She lives in the Black Forest of Germany with her husband and children (two of whom are adopted through foster care). She blogs inspirationally about her work, writing, and other resources at www.marcypusey.com. Find Marcy on Facebook here.
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