Trauma's Ripple Effect – Self Care in a Supporting Role

Vicarious Trauma, Secondary Trauma, Compassion Fatigue… these are terms that describe the impact of another person’s trauma on your nervous system. It can happen to any counsellor, care giver, or loved one that is impacted by the trauma and healing of another. When we think of trauma and PTSD we often think in terms of the victim. The types of therapies that are most effective, the different elements of physical, emotional, and mental support that they require. In formulating long term care plans for people that have suffered trauma, we often lose sight of the impact of that trauma on those around them. Even witnessing trauma can cause symptoms of PTSD, particularly in children. If your kids have trauma that impacts you even more as we often take that on in it’s full context for them.
The impact of trauma is always a ripple effect from the victim outward. As their own care is focused upon there are family members, friends, and children that can each be affected individually as that person heals. One person’s lifetime of trauma, or single event can cause such an extreme shift in their work, family life, relationships and friendships as they struggle to regain their own health and well being. The people closest to that person will ride that roller coaster with them. Kids pick up on the instability and strain, relationships can be damaged, friendships and professional relationships can be strained. When someone you love is in anguish, you feel it and so does everyone around them.
Whether the victim has suffered physical trauma from a fall or car accident, medical condition or procedure, an assault, their healing will encompass both physical and mental health care for recovery. Often the physical body heals first and the emotional and mental impacts can take longer. As a support person to someone that has suffered trauma, patience will be your trademark, but you also need to make sure you are getting the help and support you need.
Some important elements for your longevity in this journey with your loved one…
1. Self Care. Take time to nurture yourself. When much of your physical/mental/emotional energy is going outward to another person, make sure you are taking time to replenish yourself. Get adequate rest, nutrition, exercise. Take time to be alone. Find things that make you laugh. Do nice things for your body, mind and soul. Do this daily. It’s not optional. You will have more compassion and support and love to give another person when you are filling yourself up from within to prevent depletion.
2. Surround Yourself with Support. Make sure you have people close to you that you can talk to and spend time with. People that are positive and uplifting and have your best interests at heart. No room for toxic or negative people in your life right now. Keep connected with others. Often trauma is like a vacuum and everyone gets sucked into the vortex – you need to keep reaching out to combat this.
3. Seek Your Own Professional Help. This is often minimized or seen as unnecessary but speaking with a trauma therapist yourself to help regulate your nervous system and move through the effects of your loved ones trauma can help you heal and strengthen. The victim will hopefully be doing the same, but your responsibility is to your own health and making sure you are able to come back to a baseline of health after trauma as well. This is invaluable work that will sustain you and shows your investment in your own health as priority. Particularly for parents whose children have suffered trauma – seeing a therapist is highly recommended.
4. Be Realistic. Progress and healing is not linear. Not for your loved one, and not for you. There will be set backs and there will be changes. In all of you. There are some things in life that change us and change us forever. Good therapy can minimize the damage and help heal people on all levels but depending on the trauma or what was in a person’s system before the trauma, dramatic changes in personality, behaviour, emotional regulation and physical health can be seen long after the traumatic event. This may feel like three steps forward and two steps back for a long time – just make sure you’re moving in the right direction. Keep in mind that you are only responsible for your own healing, you cannot take on another person’s recovery.  Too many factors impact recovery for that to be your responsibility. Be honest with your disappointments and frustrations, you are allowed to be human and impacted throughout this journey.
5. Set Boundaries. On your time, your emotional and energetic output. This is complicated and difficult and exhausting enough, if you don’t set boundaries and limits on what you are able to manage or accept in this process you are setting yourself up for physical and mental burnout.  You cannot go down with the ship. To maintain your own resiliency and health you will have to set boundaries, learn to say no, and accept where you have limits.
Be patient. Be kind to yourself. Realize that in this journey with your loved one that the badge of honour you wear is an invisible one but that you are not invisible. You must make yourself – your health and happiness a priority in this journey to protect against getting lost in it. Trauma is big, it fills the room and can take over lives. In supporting others that have been traumatized you must protect and nourish your own sense of self and all areas of your health. You will be a better form of support if you are actively feeding your own health and resiliency.  What you are giving out in supporting another human being’s healing from trauma is profound, noble, and takes so much strength – it is honouring to your loved one. Just don’t forget to honour yourself in the process.

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