Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Mama help me!

The word ‘trauma’ calls to mind earth shattering, life changing events such as death, accident, major illnesses, natural disasters and more recently terrorist attacks.  The psychological aftermath of these events manifests itself as panic attacks,  anxiety, depression, dissociation and flashbacks etc. The condition associated with these symptoms is called PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We are all too familiar with this term thanks to Hollywood movies many of which have been based on the life of traumatized war veterans who survived the Vietnam war.

Recent research has broadened the scope of trauma within the context of PTSD. For instance what may seem to be ‘stress invoking’ but not ‘catastrophic’ events in our lives or those of our loved ones, may still have the capacity to cause PTSD depending on the age of the individual undergoing the trauma and the way it was processed at the time of occurrence.

To illustrate my point, I will cite the case of my own 12 year old son Mikail who had a propensity for severe croup attacks since birth. These attacks occurred bi-monthly from his birth to 6 years of age till he outgrew them.  To quote the Mayo Clinic “Croup often begins as a typical cold. If there is enough inflammation and coughing, a child will develop a loud barking cough. This often is worse at night, and is further aggravated by crying and coughing, as well as anxiety and agitation, setting up a cycle of worsening symptoms. Fever and a hoarse voice are common, too. Your child's breathing may be noisy or labored”.

Mikail’s attacks were of an alarming intensity. He often required a panic stricken trip to the hospital emergency wherein he would be administered steroid injections and subsequent nebulisation over the next three to four days. Osman and I have had many a sleepless nights with our boy who would wake up in the middle of the night with a bark like cough, preempting a visit to the hospital where the nebulisation was almost always forced upon him out of necessity.

This routine lasted for many years till Mikail outgrew the croup but the impact it had on him psychologically is evident even today. For instance, Mikail for years was petrified of any kind of harm to his body. A minor cut would invoke a barrage of tears and hysterics so much so that he would beg to be administered medication immediately even if not required. Mikail avoids most activities where there may be a slight chance of bodily harm, therefore, he has always stayed away from competitive sport or rough play. He freaks out at the idea of vomiting and needless to say is a very nervous patient.

I made the connection between Mikail’s childhood illness and ‘state of fear’ a few years back and instead of reprimanding him for fussing too much over nothing, I decided to use calming techniques to help him regulate his emotional outbursts. Of course I did not have an epiphany to go this route, it was only because I started to read research related to trauma that I realised what was happening. The situation has improved since then if not disappeared completely.

The critical thing to remember is that traumatic events are stored in the non-verbal part of the brain as  bodily sensations and feelings. When these sensations are triggered later on in life (smell, touch, sound or taste of something all could be triggers) the trauma reappears as a somatic or bodily reaction. Thus, no amount of logic will lessen the effect of retraumatization because the trauma memory is stored in the limbic system rather than the neocortex which is where higher level cognitive processes take place. So basically you can talk about it all you want but till you involve the body itself in the process of healing, the trauma will remain unintegrated in the brain.

I am sharing this with you just so that as parents when sometimes we fail to understand our children’s irrational behaviours, we need to stop and think before passing judgement on them. It is wise to do a little investigation into why a behaviour has been triggered for it may be related to an event that may have traumatised your child unknowingly to you.

For those interested in further reading on the subject you may like to read the following:

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