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Managing trauma during a pandemic

Former navy officer and therapist highlights signs of trauma and ways to manage it during a pandemic.

Managing trauma during a pandemic

"Trauma is not something which just affects soldiers. In fact, the bulk of trauma takes place behind closed doors, in peoples homes."
Deborah Maddison of Healing Space

From front line workers to children, more people are likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder during the pandemic, according to research.

The British Psychological Society has called for a psychological first aid to be provided as the UK runs the risk of a "future mental health crisis."

Entirely previously reported how 'shell shock' affected soldiers, as it marks the annivesray of the Battle of the Somme, a five-month campaign which started in July 1916.

But the condition is now understood to apply to civilians as well as those involved in combat and symptoms may include flashbacks, outbursts of anger and irrational fear.

Former Royal Navy Officer Deborah Maddison was medically retired from service at the age of 29. The mum-of-two, from Radstock was initially diagnosed with chronic fatigue, which has since been found to be a possible response to trauma.

It took many years for Deborah’s condition to be recognised as Complex PTSD, which is caused by repeated experience of traumatic events rather than one major incident.

Deborah, who is now 50 and heads Healing Space, said: “Trauma is not something we can easily see or measure and in the past it was not treated as real. But men were changed by war: returning home angrier, more violent or simply numb.

“Soldiers were labelled as shell-shocked - treated as cowards and deserters in a way to keep them on the front line.

“Fortunately, we have come a long way over the last 100 years and PTSD is better understood now. Although no one really understood what was wrong with me at the time, I was personally was well supported by my team, including my boss and doctor.

“But the stiff upper lip approach endured, with black humour and alcohol used to keep people going. We are now learning of kinder, healthier ways to heal.”

The Oxford graduate went on to study trauma to help make sense of her own experience and now offers a variety of therapies, looking at the mind-body connection.

Frontline workers

Deborah said: “Trauma is not something which just affects soldiers. In fact, the bulk of trauma takes place behind closed doors, in people’s homes. 

“Often it is not just one major event, but numerous experiences which build up over time. Those working on the frontline right now, such as NHS workers and police offers, may start to feel overwhelmed while caring for others.

“Even when someone is taken out of the situation, trauma continues to affect their health - yet often goes unrecognised.”

Deborah believes people do not need to become ‘stuck’ in the past. She said: “My experience has given me a new perspective on life. I have got through a difficult time and come out stronger.”

PTSD and civilians – case study

Owen Morgan, 36, set up Man Cove Wellbeing to help inform and inspire men who have been affected by trauma or mental health issues.

Owen, from Bath has personally experienced trauma – from abuse at the hands of a child-minder, to severe bullying and a life-threatening illness.

His site focuses on men, as it is believed they are less connected to their bodies and experiences, to help them to recognise trauma and ask for help where needed.

The massage therapist and personal trainer (at Aquae Sulis Wellbeing in Bath /Hanham Phsyiotherapy Clinic) said: “We share people’s experiences of trauma, as well as insights from specialists in the field, to help people recognise its affects and know that help is available.

“Trauma does necessarily have to be one major incident or be linked to fighting in a war. It can start in childhood or be a build-up of experiences over time, which affects mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.”

Owen’s trauma started when he was a young child, when his child-minder physically abused him and force-fed him.

It led him to have an unhealthy relationship with food later on and he was heavily overweight in his teens, then extremely thin and obsessed with fat percentage in his 20s.

At the age of 32, he experienced stabbing pains in his stomach and lost two stone in weight in a week.

Doctors initially struggled to understand what was wrong with him as he was young, fit and healthy – regularly running marathons.

He was diagnosed Intussusception, which is a serious condition in which part of the intestine slides into an adjacent part of the intestine.

He had multiple organ failure and the dead intestine was removed – to save his life.

The condition is very rare in adults and the doctors said stress and anxiety, which Owen had suffered badly with throughout his life, had affected his digestion and physical health.

Owen said: “It was a terrifying experience but I started to see how interlinked our physical and mental health is. From that moment I decided to take better care of myself, emotionally as well as physically.”

Owen started with mindfulness and finding ways to better connect with his body.  He went on to set up Man Cove Wellbeing to help others.

He said: “We want to inform and inspire until the day comes when people are ready to ask for help.”

Signs of trauma

The body stores trauma in many ways and each person is unique in how they will deal with it. There are two main responses, which can happen at the same time or a person can see-saw between them.

1.    Increased physiological arousal states.

On the extreme side these may be anger or rage, flashbacks, hyper-vigilance, nightmares. It can also include the following symptoms:

·         Physical: eg general edginess and inability to relax, disturbed sleep, disturbed digestion, irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath.

·         Emotional: eg impatience, aggression, tearfulness, depression, mood swings and anxiety.

·         Mental: eg confusion and brain fog, negativity and suicidal thoughts.

·         Behavioural: eg. drinking or other behaviours to “self-medicate” sedate, control and avoid difficult feelings or sensations, such as addictions, smoking, over or under eating, social withdrawal, OCD. 

2.    Shut down or “freeze” response.

This includes excessive or chronic fatigue or lethargy, fibromyalgia, migraines. It may also involve emotional numbness, feelings of not being here, floating or dissociation from the body.

Healing trauma

Treatment of trauma has evolved in the 20th century, to look at ways to make long lasting change, without medication.

Pioneers in the field have looked at approaches which heal the mind, brain and body. This includes a range of therapies, from breath-work to yoga.

Deborah said: “I believe talk-therapy can help but trauma, by its very nature, can be overwhelming. It can help to get out of our head, tune into our body and physically release stress, anxiety and trauma because trauma is stored in the body as unhelpful neurophysiological patterns.

“I feel it’s as much as anything about finding the right therapist to work with, one you can trust and feel safe working with, who won’t take you into any “re-traumatising.”

“Instead, the therapist will gently lead the way into allowing your own body to recognise its inherent ability to heal at its own pace. 

“I don’t believe there is any one “right path” to heal from trauma. Although we each have to start somewhere, ultimately we need to learn to tune into what our body and mind is really asking for.”

Deborah found a combination of TRE (trauma release exercise, which involves shaking off stress, tension and trauma via the nervous system), breath-work, Neurofeedback (a way to train brain activity) and Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) tapping (also referred to as psychological acupressure to treat physical pain and emotional distress) helped her.


More information and free resources:

·          Deborah supports people recovering from PTSD, trauma and stress and has created free online sessions.

·         Man Cove Wellbeing shares free content to inspire people to improve their health and wellbeing.


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