“Feeling safe in someone’s energy is a different kind of intimacy. That feeling of peace and protection is really underrated.” ~Vanessa Klas
I’m now fourteen months into my recovery from complex post-traumatic stress syndrome (c-PTSD aka complex trauma). I’d been in therapy for a number of years before I was diagnosed. I’d been struggling with interpersonal relationships and suffered from severe anxiety and depression, although you wouldn’t have guessed it from looking at me.
There are so many misconceptions about trauma, and before my diagnosis in 2020 I wasn’t very trauma aware.
A typical millennial 30-something woman, I had a busy corporate life and lived a jet-setting lifestyle. Instagram was full of photos of me traveling through Europe and enjoying flashy meals at Edinburgh Castle. I also enjoyed entertaining friends in my Flat just off the Water of Leith.
It was 2020. With 2020, the world fell into a pandemic. I lost my livelihood and job. There were a million distractions around me. I found myself trapped in my own house, with nothing to do and no one to distract.
I was facing deportation since I no longer had the right to live in the UK, but wasn’t able to leave, as all flights back to Australia were stopped. I was stuck in purgatory between what I wanted and where it had to be, without any way out.
It all came together. It’s the only way I can describe the slow, torturous unpicking of my carefully pieced together life. The illusions of control were gone. In the isolation prison, I faced all of the shadows I tried to avoid.
Solitary confinement forces you to deal with parts of yourself that are difficult to ignore in the midst of a busy social life. We often think of trauma as something that happens if you’ve experienced a sudden violent incident, like a car crash, or if you’ve been assaulted, or if you’ve been in a warzone. All of those are true.
Trauma may also develop over time from prolonged exposure to events or incidents that disrupt your nervous system.
The conflict in my parents’ relationship created the perfect breeding ground for c-PTSD, as my formative years (before I turned seven) were very volatile with a lot of upheaval, travel, and change.
My parents’ stress from trying to move to Australia for five years, then eventually to Canada caused a custody and divorce battle. The end result was that neither my parents were available to help me with my emotional needs.
Trauma: What does it mean?
The American Psychological Association describes trauma as an “emotional response to a terrible event such as accident, rape, or natural disaster.” Dr Gabor Mate goes further, describing trauma as “…the invisible force that shapes our lives. It affects the way you live, how we love, and how we understand the world. It is the root of our deepest wounds.”
Not all people who experience a terrible or violent event will get PTSD. Only a very small percentage of the population will experience trauma. However, most people will have been exposed to at least one of these traumatic events in their lives.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is considered to be a “severe reaction to an extreme or frightening traumatic event” and can include flashbacks of the event, intrusive memories and nightmares, avoidance of activities, situations or people that trigger these memories, and hypervigilance and hypersensitivity.
Complex trauma, or complex post-traumatic stress disorder, occurs after repeated and prolonged incidents that disrupt the nervous system’s ability to regulate itself. Complex trauma occurs from events experienced early in childhood development, and it causes problems with memory and the development of a person’s identity and interpersonal relationships.
Complex trauma can manifest as negative self-beliefs, difficulty maintaining healthy relationships and difficulties expressing emotions.
The moment I was diagnosed with complex trauma early in 2021 felt almost like a breath of fresh air, after having been held under water for so long. It was difficult; it hurt. There was relief.
It was initially hard to breathe. Slowly but surely, I began to feel better and could no longer gulp, grab, or flounder.
My toxic relationship for years with an older man was one that I felt trapped in. He had battled his childhood demons. Over the years, I didn’t feel like I did enough. I wasn’t smart or beautiful enough to merit the job, relationship or life that I wanted.
I was a skimmer in the waters of life, I wanted community but I also pushed it away. Although I desired closeness it was overwhelming. Success was what I desired, but it felt frightening. Each time I felt good in life, there was a problem and then everything fell apart. So, it would be a constant struggle to rebuild.
My life was a constant spiral that saw me take one step ahead and five back. The pandemic was a reminder of this, as I had to leave Australia to find work and repay my debts.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this constant spiral of stress and loss was a subconscious play that I kept re-enacting. I was trapped by subtle, sneaky self-sabotage mechanisms that were part of my childhood. I kept repeating cycles that triggered familiar responses within my nervous system—ones of unsafety, loneliness, and abandonment.
My trauma recovery process has involved a lot of hard work. I worked with a trauma informed therapist for fourteen months to rebuild my safety and self-regulate.
Through all of it, it was amazing to witness how others reacted my loss and grief.
We’re not taught how to sit with our own uncomfortable feelings, let alone someone else’s. We live in a culture that thinks “positive vibes only” qualifies as a spiritual practice, when in reality, we need to be able to witness and love our shadows in order to fully heal.
If someone you love is going through a hard time, if you know someone who is struggling, here’s some advice on how to hold space for them, from someone who has been on the receiving end of well-meaning but unhelpful suggestions throughout my recovery.
It is about giving space to another person. It is about being completely present for someone else.
Always be present
First, check in with yourself. Do you feel ready to share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences with that person? Can you share your personal and professional experiences, thoughts, and opinions?
If not, that’s okay. Self-care starts with you, and forcing yourself to be present with someone when you aren’t in the right head space will not help the other person.
Let them know that you aren’t in the right head space right now and refer them to a helpline or specialist. To make sure that they are following through, check in again with them and to have someone to talk too.
This will make you both do a favor. It all comes down to cooperation.
When you are grounded and fully present with someone who is going through a hard time, you are allowing them to “borrow” your nervous system to down regulate when they are in a heightened state of arousal and activation. This will make them more anxious and dangerous if your nervous system gets activated.
This can lead to a deeply healing and healing relationship when you can sit down with someone to listen without judgment or trying to fix them.
Being witnessed in our grief without judgment, pity, or awkwardness removes some of the shame we’re experiencing as we’re processing our difficult emotions.
Often, those with complex trauma did not have their needs met and didn’t have their feelings validated as children. It’s a deeply healing experience to be with someone who cares about you and to feel seen and validated at your most vulnerable moment.
You can practice conscious and reflective listening
When we are listening to someone, we’re only half paying attention to what they are saying. Half of our attention is already formulating our response, so we’re rarely ever focused on their words.
Being present for another person means listening fully and being completely present. You should not only pay attention to the words of others, but also their body language.
Give yourself time to pause. Silence can feel uncomfortable, but when we’re processing difficult emotions, sometimes we need a little silence to gather our thoughts or sit with what we’ve just said. Don’t try to fill the pauses in the conversation straight away.
Refrain from judging the words of others and try to mirror them. This doesn’t have to be verbatim. It could be as simple as “I can see that this situation has really hurt you. I hear that you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed out because you’ve lost your job. I can image that’s really scary. Can you share more?”
This allows them to expand and clarify if they want to, or to just feel like they’ve been heard if that’s all they wanted to share.
You can observe without judgment
Be willing to listen without judging what the other person is saying or how they’re interpreting their experience. People with complex trauma are more alert and conscious of their emotions than others. It was essential to our survival as children.
It is important to listen to and be attentive to how you respond to our words. You can listen with compassion and empathy, as well as being open to the ideas and opinions of others.
Even if other people think it is worse.
You may not have the solution you are looking for.
While it might feel that we are reacting excessively, often trauma causes us to recall past events. When we’re triggered, we’re not only reacting to the situation we are currently facing, but also the unprocessed emotions from the previous situations. We’re dealing with the past and the present simultaneously, and it can feel overwhelming.
Being witnessed by someone who cares about us without judgment when we’re triggered is a deeply healing experience. Many people with anxiety, trauma and depression feel embarrassed about their emotions. Having someone observe us can help us to be free from judgment.
Amanda Louisa, a sustainability expert, coach for feminine leadership, and recovering attorney, is Amanda Louisa. Her mission is to help corporations and women use the power and resilience of female leadership in order to build resilient and thriving organisations that will lead to a brighter future. When she’s not trying to revolutionize how we treat the planet and women, you can find her with her two cats or cooking up a feast for family and friends. Get your cheat sheet to manage your nervous system.
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