This article is written for nurses, psychologists, child protection workers, social workers, journalists, counsellors, therapists and teachers. Anyone who has been exposed to the stories of those who have experienced extreme trauma and suffering.
It’s true you know. We all have our limits and after pushing my body and brain too far; well it happened. The inevitable. My mind had a crisis.
I am not alone. Many women and men have walked the path before me. Adrianna Huffington, Mia Freedman and Brene Brown have all shared their own stories of a mental health and physical health crisis, and to be honest it has been reading their stories that sometimes helped me to get through a tough moment or two. So thank you Adrianna, Mia and Brene.
If I am honest I did not think it would ever happen to me. I mean I am the helper. The therapist after all. But it did and as I look back it was inevitable really. Not because I am weak or sensitive, or someone who cares too much. Just because there is a simple math’s equation.
Exposure to trauma (witnessing and hearing peoples traumatic experiences as a therapist) + pushing myself too much + some wobbly biochemistry = something has to give.
Whilst it’s been quite a mystery to unravel I now know that the combination of not getting enough sleep, a funny little thing called vicarious trauma and several biochemical factors all came crashing together one day and in that moment – I thought that perhaps I had lost my mind.
Even though I am well on my way to my recovery now. Little did I know that one night whilst typing away on my laptop that my life would change and I would feel a level of fear that I had not yet experienced in my life before.
It began in a nano second. My mind became flooded with images, thoughts and sensations related to the traumatic experiences I had been exposed to over the last 20 years working with people as a therapist and social worker.
Over those years I had heard (and sometimes witnessed) stories about all forms of extreme child abuse, domestic violence, imprisonment and lots of traumatic death. For me it was not the every day sad stories than many of us experience. It has been of course the areas of work where I have been exposed to the tougher, more extreme experiences that very few people really experience. It has been those stories that have had an impact.
All at once. Image after image flashed across my mind and there was nothing I could do to stop it. It was as if the flood gates had opened and the dam walls were well and truly broken. My body went into a fear state and I began to have the first of many panic attacks.
The weeks and months that followed were filled with a collection of these moments. Sheer terror, panic and disbelief. For a long time I was quite disorientated and confused and at times I found myself reliving these intrusive images as if they were happening to me. I now understand that re-experiencing a trauma story told to you by a client as if it is actually happening personally to you or someone you care about is a common way that vicarious trauma can present itself.
The only place I felt safe and in control was actually when I was at work. I think I can safely say that in my practice I was still myself. I was at my best when I was being of service to others. This is common amongst people who suffer with anxiety and depression. I have many clients who love their working lives as focussing upon the work can give them great relief from their symptoms. And usually these are people who are the most exceptional, kindest and highly successful in their field.
At home I muddled along. I went on family holidays, created birthday parties, smiled for the camera, hugged and loved my children and leaned on my husband Alan for endless support.
It has taken me several months to unpack what was happening. I should have known instantly what was going on yet I will be kind to myself. Sometimes these things just take time. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place a few months ago and it has been this final piece – my bio chemistry – that has made all the difference.
When your mind and body wants your attention; they will not take no for an answer!
I now understand that there were three key factors that all came crashing together in a sequence of symptoms that demanded my attention. I could no longer ignore the call for help that was coming loud and clear from my mind and body. I was made to stop, listen and attend.
If I am honest my body had been sending me signals that something was not quite right for about the 12 months prior. About a year earlier I had a series of what felt like neurological symptoms. I thought I had addressed these by making some necessary adjustments. I caught up on some lost sleep over the holidays, made some dietary changes and reframed how I perceived my business. These changes did really reduce my stress levels considerably and I recall thinking to myself … “Tick, health crisis averted .. now back to work.”
To be kind to myself I could have never really have comprehended just what was brewing under the surface. I had no other obvious psychological symptoms based on what I knew then.
I have always had a regular practice of checking in with my body; but I now understand there is a subtle yet powerful difference between checking in and really paying close attention to the way your body is holding and experiencing stress and trauma.
The body remembers ….
The greatest predictor of whether you will experience vicarious trauma or PTSD is simply being exposed to trauma. That’s it!
Now whilst this sounds to be a very simple formula; the truth is that in real life the impact of trauma; when it comes to workers it is often cumulative. It sneaks up on you. One day you are fine and then the next it literally hits you.
I have always been very passionate about self care. I held clear boundaries and have “looked after myself” I would debrief, attend clinical supervision, have a massage or a warm bath especially after a “tough day”. But I realise now that much more is needed.
I now understand that many professionals are not even aware that they are still carrying elements of the trauma that they have been exposed to, perhaps many years ago. For me, the worst and most persistent images relate to a situation I was exposed to over 20 years ago.
I am now passionate about teaching others how to self scan for any residual impact that may be unseen yet still present. Just waiting for a chance to express itself.
I want you to know its ok to fall apart. To be affected. You can and you will find your own way forward. The combination of help will differ for everyone. And there is no right way or wrong way to put yourself back together. Just your way.
So in the same way that others writings have helped me at a time of need, I wanted to share with you my own experiences of what has worked for me so that you can explore these ideas and see if they are a good fit for you.
- Find and connect with your tribe of some equally human people …
Brene Brown has been open about her breakdown. I am a long term supporter of her work and especially at this time her work about the power of vulnerability has been so helpful as I have written this article.
Mia Freedman has empowered women as she shared her story about her own experience with anxiety. In fact it was Mia’s story that helped me to understand a piece of my experience that had me baffled. The arrival of my vicarious trauma symptoms came at a time when I had just begun a serious detox with the help of some herbal remedies. It was after reading Mia’s story; where she described how her anxiety began just after she had completed a health retreat that helped me to make sense of my own experience.
Of course; a period where you solely focus on your health in an extreme way – can bring to the surface whatever has been lurking below just waiting for an opportunity to express itself. And for both of us; this is how it unfolded.
I encourage you to search and explore and you will find many stories where highly successful and fully functioning people have a physical or mental health crisis. It can really help to read about how they made their way through that experience. The comfort I felt as I watched Brene speak and read and listened to Mia share her experience was just what I needed and I shall be forever grateful to them for their willingness to be vulnerable and share their story. It is the reason why I am sharing mine.
- Enjoy the restorative power of a good nights sleep …
Somehow we have really lost our way with sleep. In our fast paced world sleep has become viewed as an optional extra rather than a key component of good health. One of the key factors that contributed to my health crisis was my lack of sleep. For many years I was working in my 9-5 job and then as soon as my girls would hit the pillow at 8pm I’d be working on my business until anywhere between 1 am – 4 am each night. Even when I stepped into my own business full time I just kept those hours of work as there was always so much to do. I was so driven that I pushed myself too far.
Adrianna Huffington has spoken a lot about how her drive to achieve kept her up working long hours which then led to a physical break down. The first change that brought the best results for me was to simply get more sleep. After over 9 years of chronic sleep deprivation I literally had to retrain myself back into a normal sleep regime and its still a work in progress.
I now have a ritual where most nights I wind down for at least 20 minutes before bed. I have made my room into a pretty sanctuary with a lovely bedside lamp and I read a real book to help slow my mind down. I will also not stay in bed if I am having trouble getting to sleep. I will get up, have a soothing drink or a shower to help my body relax.
- Know your biochemistry – it may be making you sadder and much more anxious than you naturally are.
Some where in the middle of all this; my husband sent me this article. I had not heard of the MTHFR gene before and I was intrigued. After much reading, research and a visit to my very clever GP – I also learnt about Pyrrole Disorder (also known as Mauve Disorder) and the importance of a thorough examination of thyroid functioning to determine just what the body is doing or not doing to contribute to the way you are feeling.
After undergoing a series of pathology tests with my GP I have been diagnosed as positive for Pyrrole, wish a dash of a faulty MTHFR gene and the early onset of Hishimotoes . These three little discoveries really contribute to the way I experience stress, anxiety and depression. There is a lot that makes sense in my life now.
Whilst some areas of mainstream medicine are slower to embrace the idea of pyrolle disorder for example; I am open to all sides of medicine. With a positive diagnosis my GP prescribed a compound pharmacy dose of a combination of vitamins and minerals and this has brought untold relief to my body and mind.
I can not describe the dramatic change I now feel. This has actually been the singularly most transformational part of my recovery. I am better now than I was before my mind crisis. And so for me I am allowing the results speak for themselves.
- Give your brain a break and live slow – you are more productive that way!
Life can feel really fast. There is always so much to do and it can feel like there is just not enough time. There is an abundance of evidence that it is critical to give your brain some time to just stop. To simply do nothing. To not ‘be on’. This may be just sitting, staring out the window and sipping a cup of tea.
I am discovering and exploring ways that I can incorporate a sense of slowing down into every aspect of my life. Whether it is slowing down my work schedule, my home life, slow tech or slow eating. Everything in my life is having ‘the slow overhaul’. Slow Your Home is an amazing podcast that talks about all things slow living and it provides a great place to start when opening up to the idea of living life in a slower way.
I now have scheduled a rest period of about 30 minutes most days, usually in the mid afternoon. I use this rest time to have a nap or just lay down on the couch. Some days I miss it but then that is ok too.
When at home I am slowing down my approach to every task. This does not mean that I don’t buzz around sometimes; especially in the morning when I am getting myself and my girls out the door. But my time on the weekend for example is steadier and I am much more considered in how I spend every single moment of it.
Just like with more sleep, I am discovering that when you are more measured and slower in your approach to tasks, you miraculously get more done. I find it much easier to move through my list of things to do and I know I am much more productive. Who would have thought that was possible!
- Clear away clutter and bring some order
Another surprise both for me and for those who know me – is that I have found the value of clearing away the clutter and bringing order and a sense of organisation into my home and office. This was not really a conscious choice yet seemed to come about at the time I was becoming well again. I just felt the need to clear away the clutter! The last time I felt this way was when I was nesting when I was pregnant with the girls.
I am working through each draw and each section of our home clearing, sorting, donating and recycling untold amounts of stuff from my house. I have discovered Alejandra.tv and have felt great delight in the process of clearing the clutter and creating systems of organisation. This has been an unexpected yet powerful part of my feeling better.
- The best medicine is sometimes accidental
I had founded Kindness On Purpose well before the first wave of vicarious trauma hit. Whilst Kindness On Purpose is completely separate to this story; I need to acknowledge its place in giving me the opportunity to take what I have come to understand over 20 years of working with severe trauma and suffering and apply it in a macro setting. As I have transitioned out of the intensive trauma focused therapy work Kindness On Purpose has given me an opportunity to use all that knowledge in a much more positive way.
For many professionals who suffer from vicarious trauma they can look back on their careers; feel the harm that the work has now had upon their own mental health and hold regret. I do not feel that way. I have taken 20 plus years of knowledge and transformed it into a positive program that is now helping the next generation feel empathy for others. And when we have more empathy then we have less harm.
Also, whilst it was never set up for this purpose; the truth is that as I travel to each Kindness On Purpose school and see the generosity, warmth and care from so many professionals, students and parents – I literally feel something being restored. You see, when your work with people has been about hearing stories about just how hurtful people can be to each other – this experience changes you. It leaves a mark and to be honest it can easily take you down the slippery slope of doubting humanity.
Some days I am amazed at the timing of Kindness On Purpose in my life. I created Kindness On Purpose as I do believe in the innate goodness within people despite the evidence I have been exposed to over the years. And each time I see the power of the Kindness On Purpose program as it touches other people lives; I am reminded about the capacity for each of us to make a positive difference. And well that experience, quite accidentally; helps me a lot.
My work as a therapist and clinical consultant is still part of my practice. I love the opportunity to help people in this way. The people I work with now in my practice have all been carefully considered. Each new referral is also reviewed and I am mindful to keep a balance. As the receptionist Julie at Karuna Health Care – the cottage where I have my office – always says; “Katrina the people who come to see you are all lovely.” And she is right.
I love working with people and this will never change. I am now just more considerate of my mind and my body as I step through each day. And really, we can all benefit from living that way.