Once upon a time (not too long ago) the topic of mental health was taboo; destined to be swept under the rug at the earliest opportunity. In recent years however, opening up about our struggles has not only become widely acceptable but also frequently encouraged in workplaces, families and in social settings. Whilst some stigma still surrounds the topic of mental health, learning that someone you know or care about is experiencing their own struggles is more than likely becoming increasingly common. As a society, we’re becoming much better at speaking up when things aren’t going so well.
However, despite living in an era with increasingly better mental-health literacy, it can still be difficult to know how to open up to someone when we are struggling ourselves. Articulating clearly what we’re struggling with can often be the first roadblock. Perhaps a new relationship is impacting us more negatively than previous ones, or we suddenly can’t cope in social situations, preferring instead to retreat in solitude.
We know something is wrong, but we’re just not quite sure what it is.
Is it trauma?
For many, it may be that we are struggling with something traumatic from our early years that has been either repressed, suppressed or left unresolved. Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) is also known as developmental or childhood trauma, and is a condition caused by less-than nurturing experiences that we may face in our early years.
C-PTSD differs from PTSD in that a large-scale catastrophic event (such as an assault, death, war or natural disaster) needn’t have occurred for one to feel the impacts of childhood trauma. Rather, childhood trauma can be caused by frequent, reoccurring experiences of emotional and physical neglect or abuse. ”So whilst a singular episode of a negative early childhood experience, for example being ‘raged’ at, might not be catastrophic in it’s own right, when it is experienced again and again, our core beliefs, overall view of the world, and the relationships we have within it can easily become distorted” says Diane Young, Addiction and Trauma specialist at South Pacific Private.
“It’s the old adage of death by a thousand cuts”, says Young. “When we endure these less-than-nurturing experiences from our primary caregivers over and over again, we create coping mechanisms – we have to in order to survive.” As adults we might take our experiences at face value in the belief that ‘this was just my family’s way of doing things’, or perhaps we minimise what happened to us as being ‘nothing’ compared to what others might have gone through. And, whilst these coping mechanisms may protect and serve us during childhood, in adulthood they can become maladaptive, manifesting in difficulty relating to others, anxiety, depression or addiction.
Who can I talk to about my trauma?
Many of us will have trusted friends or family members that we can confide in; however, it’s important to realise that those closest to us may want to absolve your pain – putting a bandage over your emotional wounds. A person close to us may listen with empathy, yet react with affirming statements or overt positivity in order to ‘fix’ you or help you feel better. Whilst this is often an act of love and compassion indicating their care for you, it might feel as though they are minimising or dismissing the enormity of what you are trying to explain.
“Our friends and family often have only the best of intentions; they’re the people who will always love us and be in our corner” says Young, “but talking about your trauma is not simply about getting things ‘off your chest’ to erase what happened and feel better. It’s about processing what your experience meant to you at the time, what it means to you in your current context and getting practical help to move forward and live a happier and healthier life”.
For this reason, Young says that it’s always a good idea to speak with a trauma-informed healthcare professional to ensure that you are heard in a safe and supported therapeutic environment and to guide you in facing and processing your trauma. Participating in group therapy or an inpatient program such as South Pacific Private’s Core Inpatient Program can provide the support and sense of community required to process potentially confronting subject matter.
Recovering from childhood trauma
Whilst those less-than nurturing experiences of our childhood can never be erased, our wounds can heal and the scars that remain can be indicators of our gained strength and resilience. “Recovering from childhood trauma is a process that takes time, and requires a deep exploration of one’s past and a commitment to continuous self development” says Young. “It is an ongoing journey that we embark on, the destination being an emotionally and physically healthy existence in which we find joy once more.”
Learn more about Childhood Trauma here. If you or someone you care about is struggling, you can take a free, confidential self-assessment or call our team to discuss how we may be able to support you on 1800 063 332.