Cumulative PTSD is where traumatic events have compounded over a period of time, sometimes years on end, without ever allowing the person to get back to base or back to ‘normal’, before the net onslaught. After several years of this exposure, the person is left waiting for the next blow, even years after the trouble has subsided. Police officers, military personnel and fire fighters are not the only ones to experience cumulative PTSD. It can happen to anyone.
Sarah’s Cumulative PTSD – Part 1
Sarah was a successful entrepreneur with her own marketing business. She had come to me for help with extinguishing what was left of PTSD. The symptoms she experienced included
- Compromised gut health and severe digestive issues
- Frequent waking at night
- Phobias – worse in the presence of stress
- Occasional depression
To look at, Sarah seemed healthy and well. However she had worked hard to achieve this level of stability, having suffered debilitating health issues during the time of her trauma events, which lasted for eight years the first time around, and six years the second time around. In the first round, Sarah was being sexually harassed at work by a very important State politician, whereby she was ostracised by the organisation because no-one wanted to confront the perpetrator. Instead of support, Sarah received discrimination when she attempted to seek help. The HR department actually advised the sexual harassment officer not to assist Sarah. Sarah’s self esteem was so low that she found it difficult to find another job.
When Sarah did obtain another role, it was coincidentally working for a woman who was socially acquainted with her ex-boss, the politician, and she became victimised again through this woman’s bullying of her. The woman actually saw it as an opportunity to gain social standing by punishing Sarah for what had happened to her.
At the same time, Sarah and her husband were struggling, and he proved to be completely unsupportive during this awful time. They decided to separate. After a year, the divorce was imminent and then Sarah’s husband tried to deceive Sarah out of her share of the property. She had never known him to be sneaky and was devastated at his behaviour. Fortunately she did not succumb to his lies.
During this phase also, Sarah’s mother had a stroke and Sarah moved in to assist around the house. Then Sarah’s sister set about to push Sarah out of the way, so that she could claim her mother’s inheritance for herself, when the mother would eventually die. In the space of eight years, Sarah had lost her job(s), lost her marriage and lost her connection to her mother, who was now unable to think clearly. Her cumulative PTSD was well entrenched, but she could still come back from it at this point, with some effort.
Things settled into some kind of normal when Sarah took on some further studies and found a new focus for herself. After graduating, she relocated interstate to take up a role as marketing manager for a university. The first year went swimmingly, and it seemed Sarah could do no wrong, but then at the end of her contract she applied for another role within the same School, and she got it. Had she not been successful, she would have come back to the Sunshine Coast.
Sarah’s new role was working with the same people, but in more of a research capacity. Within one month she had won the Dean a sort after grant and he sung her praises at the Executive Committee. This adulation sparked the animosity of a woman on the committee, who then began implying that the Dean was up to his old tricks. Apparently he had a past involving a laboratory assistant. Happily, Sarah was oblivious to this side of him.
Before long the woman, who was close friends with the Dean’s wife, began calling the shots. Sarah was to be demoted, reduced to a secretarial function so that she could no longer be the subject of the Dean’s praises. After six months of attempting to discuss the situation with the Dean, Sarah went to HR for assistance. Again HR sided with the Dean and attacked Sarah for her ‘false’ accusations around discrimination.
This was the second time Sarah had to defend herself and her rights against a large organisation. In both cases there seemed to be men with a reputation, and women who wished to side with them for personal or professional advantage. Again the organisation ostracised Sarah, in siding with the power players. This discrimination alone was enough to trigger cumulative PTSD, leave aside what had gone before, and what was still to come.
Sarah was transferred to another manager where she was again allowed to perform her work. In her final month she attended a research expedition, and was poisoned by activities at a dockyard, underneath the motel where she stayed. The workers sprayed poisonous gases around to kill any bugs lurking inside the shipping containers. They wore masks and suits, but Sarah had no idea what was going on just metres below her, and the winds were high. This poison, it turns out, does irreparable damage, and Sarah’s body was a mess. Her digestive system, nervous system and her immune system were the main victims. In other parts of the world, this chemical is banned because it can be lethal, and it has left many people disabled.
Within the next five years, Sarah would also attend court for an injustice against her, and lose her mother to another stroke – but not until her sister had cemented that wedge between them.
Healing Cumulative PTSD
When PTSD has existed for so long, the physical body often changes to reflect the state of emotional dysregulation. Just as anxiety can affect gut and brain health, PTSD can amplify the body’s dysfunction. Sometimes complete healing does not seem possible, and so my aim was to assist Sarah to get to a place where she could feel stable, and continue to improve. Before Sarah came to see me, it had taken her eight years to find the right kind of nutritional assistance to help her to regain strength and sleep function after the poisoning. Her digestive system was still in disrepair, but a highly simplified diet has gone a long way to manage this. She remained highly sensitive to substances ingested and also in her environment however.
With cumulative PTSD, it is important to assist the mind and the body simultaneously. If Sarah had come to see me back then when the poisoning had occurred, I am certain that she would have been further along the road to recovery. My approach with Sarah has been to reframe the past and refocus the future, with strong attention to keeping Sarah’s values as a beacon to guide her actions going forwards.
Hypnotherapy will continue to improve her nervous system, despite the damage done by the noxious gases. This will, in time, improve her gut health; and it has helped with her stress and phobias, and her depression also. Beyond that, learning to see a compelling future, instead of consistently expecting the worst, has been the most significant change in her. If you need assistance with cumulative PTSD, or a specific event which has created PTSD, or with anxiety, depression or related mindset, we can help. Horizons Clinical Hypnotherapy Sunshine Coast