This is a heavy topic and one that I’ve put off writing about for far too long. I know there are other mommas like me out there. I know because they email me and private message me and the desperation is evident in their words.
I wanted to share some information about secondary trauma and provide a few suggestions to help combat it before I share a bit about my personal story of living with it.
Secondary trauma, which is also sometimes referred to as vicarious trauma, can affect therapists, first responders and primary caregivers. By bearing witness to the trauma of others, you can take some of that trauma on for yourself. You can imagine that in adoptive parents whose children have endured abuse, neglect, abandonment, or unspeakable evils prior to coming to them, that trauma can become something they themselves can begin to take on.
The DSM states that trauma can affect those who survive a traumatic event, those who witness a traumatic event or those who hear of a traumatic event that affected someone of significance to them. It then stands to reason that parents who hear of their adopted child’s past trauma would be at risk of developing secondary trauma.
Some of the signs of secondary trauma include:
-having difficulty talking about your feelings
-feeling diminished joy towards things you once enjoyed
-having a limited range of emotion but anger and irritation always being present
-having an exaggerated startle response
-intrusive thoughts of your child’s history
-feelings of hopelessness
-problems with intimacy
-feeling withdrawn and isolated
-questioning your worldview
There are some strategies that can help combat symptoms of secondary trauma. Exercise that increases your heart rate for at least 12 minutes a day, five days a week, can decrease symptoms. Focusing on your breathing and using mindfulness have also been shown to help. For mindfulness, you can use yoga, a mindfulness app on your phone, gratitude, prayer, or meditation. Finding a support group of others who have walked a similar road can be therapeutic. Individual or family counselling may also be helpful.
For myself, I find that yoga is helpful once I am actually in the class, but rarely make the time for it. I do regularly use a combination of prayer and purposeful gratitude.
Hearing about your child’s past trauma can trigger your own trauma history which is also something to be aware of. If you find that your symptoms are worsening or significantly interfering with your life, seek the help of a licensed therapist.
One further note regarding trauma: secondary trauma can occur from hearing about your child’s past trauma but, as a foster or adoptive parent, you can also be at risk of developing full PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). This can happen as a result of your child’s behaviours, for instance if you are attacked or placed at risk. PTSD can also occur if your spouse or other children are harmed or if behaviours occur that require legal intervention. If you suspect you may be suffering from PTSD, seek help from a medical professional or licensed therapist.
My own story of secondary trauma and PTSD:
I didn’t realize for a long time that I was suffering from secondary trauma. It wasn’t something that was talked about in the adoptive community. I knew that I was struggling. Certain aspects what some of my kids had gone through before they came to me haunted me. While it’s normal to feel sympathy for someone else’s suffering, particularly someone you love, there is a point where it can become unhealthy and I had reached that point. I was taking on their suffering. My secondary trauma left me feeling weak and run down and I believe that it put me at greater risk for PTSD.
I strive to keep my children’s privacy, so I won’t publicly go into details of what triggered my PTSD, but I want to share with other adoptive moms (and dads) that it is so important to take care of your own mental health. Being purposeful about practising self-care is a must.I am now in therapy for my secondary trauma and PTSD and have found tremendous healing with the use of EMDR. It feels great to be myself again!
If you suspect that you may be suffering from secondary trauma or PTSD, I urge you to look into therapy and practising self-care. It can make a world of difference.