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When Grief Triggers C-PTSD

Today is the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death. (Jan. 2015)

For the past three years I have had trauma symptoms in the weeks surrounding her death. Her death was not related to any trauma, however, every year I suddenly seem to be unable to function. Then I look at the calendar and I notice that the anniversary of her death is coming up.

I literally implode. I think I have slept no more than two to three hours a night in the past two weeks. I can barely function during the day and my two main priorities are to take care of my son and do a good job at my work. Other than that, all bets are off. I am basically a walking (when needed) or sitting zombie. I become depressed and can’t really take care of myself. I am anxious and shaking all of the time. All of those symptoms are symptoms of C-PTSD.

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) is a psychological disorder that can develop in response to prolonged, repeated experience of interpersonal trauma in a context in which the individual has little or no chance of escape.”

Because of C-PTSD, your brain has a heightened reaction to all things that cause even normal amounts of stress, like grief. So while the C-PTSD was not caused by my mom’s death, it shows up because that is just where my brain goes when it experiences sadness or other intense emotions. If you have had C-PTSD long enough, you will probably experience trauma from what are typical stressors and things neurotypical people can handle relatively well. (On the flip side, we tend to handle acute trauma really well, so we are great on trauma response teams or as hospital chaplains.)

Even though I have great treatment and have been doing really well, this will still happen, because that is the way this illness goes. Most of us don’t ever “recover” from C-PTSD, and no matter how well we treat our illness, it does relapse at times.

I hate that my totally normal grief has this C-PTSD reaction attached to it. What my brain wants to do is celebrate my mom, but since with celebration comes sadness of her not being here anymore, it tries to overprotect me from the sadness part of grief.

However, this is my life, and the life of many other people People you probably have in your life- your kids, partner, boss, best friend- and you probably don’t know because we almost never talk about it. Most of us are forced to hide it because 1. The stigma against mental illness, and 2. people then use it against you in a myriad of ways. (3.3% of people in the United States experience C-PTSD in their lifetime.)

I share it with you because I have the privilege of being safe to do so. In the important communities in my life, no one will retaliate against me for this. Plus I have great help and am totally used to handling this. This means I can raise awareness about C-PTSD and I can help other people like me know they are not alone.

If you experience a C-PTSD trigger, here are my tips for handling it:

  • Stick to your treatment plan religiously. I said “yes” to a prolonged meeting and delaying my sleep just one night and that was what started this spiral into severe C-PTSD. During triggering times, you just don’t have the leeway to not be strict about your self-care. Just one night of poor sleep exasperates bipolar disorder and trauma, both of which I have.

  • Tell yourself over and over again that this is C-PTSD and it will not last forever. I know this will not take the feelings away. It will not make your brain really do anything different because it is in a patterned reaction. However, it does increase your safety substantially. For many of us, when we know what we are dealing with, we can avoid going from depression to a suicide plan. C-PTSD tells you that you are in imminent danger and you will not survive, that there is no way out. Now, for many of us, if we know that this is the C-PTSD, we know we will survive. The thoughts and feelings are real, we just know where they are coming from and can kind of wait them out better.

  • Ask for help from friends and family early. As soon as you see signs of a trauma reaction, ask for extra help in keeping up with your care and care for others you are responsible for. Decreasing overall stress load can make the bought of trauma end faster. You also need to save your energy to take care of the things no one else can, such as certain work and life commitments, and having help in other areas allows you to do that. Keep your call list of helpers handy because our brains will want to tell us we are alone and have no help. We need to remind ourselves that we always have help. If you do not have a call list, make one today!

  • Don't make new major decisions. Do not suddenly decide to move across the country, buy a new house, change schools, quit school, etc... If you were not contemplating these things before, then wait until your brain is at a lower threat level to make big decisions.

  • Thank your brain. I know our brains are wired differently and in a more sensitive way, but your brain is also doing an amazing thing- trying to protect you. Your brain is a survivor. Maybe it is over protecting you right now, but it’s intent is to help you live and survive. I honestly find that looking at my brain with compassion for how it has helped me survive since I was six years old, in the best way it knew how, helps me decrease the level of threat my brain is perceiving. If I try and fight it and try and tell myself that the threat is not real, my brain pushes back harder and harder, because it IS real to my brain. Instead, I thank it and try to work with it in ways that I know are healthy, and I recover much faster. I learned this from Eleanor Longden in her TED Talk; “The Voices in My Head,” and I believe it has truly saved my life.

If you know someone having a trauma reaction, feel free to check in with them, but for most of us who live with this all the time, we prefer to just ask you for help when we need it. What I wrote here may sound shocking to you, but it is pretty normal for us and we don’t like it to be blown out of proportion, we do not like to be pitied, we do not like when people tell us what we can and cannot do, and we do not like when people tell us how to treat our illness. (Of course, if you really feel someone is unsafe, then find out who their trauma intervention person is and contact them so they can follow their plan of action.) For the most part, we are resilient. We have worked hard at managing our illness, and we just need people we can call on for help, empathy, and understanding.


Rev. Katie

P.S. Just a reminder, I am fine and if I need help, I ask. I only write about things I am ready to write about that I have worked through.

* This blog pro­vides gen­eral infor­ma­tion and dis­cus­sion about med­i­cine, health, wellness, and related topics. The con­tent pro­vided in this blog, and in any linked mate­ri­als, are not intended and should not be con­strued as med­ical advice. The content is for informational purposes only. If you have any medical concerns, you should consult with a licensed physician or other health care worker.

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