3 Things to Know When Processing Trauma

 Guest Post by Allie Chapa

  Adobe stock photo

Adobe stock photo

The middle is a disheartening place; you don’t quite see the beginning and you definitely don’t see the end. This is how I would describe my process with mental illness and trauma right now. I’m in the foggy, muddy middle and quite honestly, most days I want to give up.

For the last year and a half I’ve been focusing on recovery from my latest episode of depression and anxiety. I have found that for me, medication and counseling are what I need during this time, even though it may not be what’s best for everyone. More specifically, I have been doing EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy, a specialized therapy that focuses on trauma. (You can learn more about EMDR therapy, here.)

Within the last five years, with the help of a counselor, I have learned that my childhood was abnormal from others. I have a loving mother who did her best raising me but unfortunately was also emotionally abusive. The pain from this has manifested in a multitude of false beliefs about myself and others—beliefs so deeply embedded in my mind that I didn’t know they were false until this past year as I’ve processed them for the first time in EMDR therapy.

This journey has been long, hard, and freeing all at the same. I have found relief that the things I believe about myself and others are completely wrong. I have found more anxiety because there are so many false and negative beliefs. I have found hope that I can believe new things. I have found frustration because truly believing those new things is really hard. I have found despair because I feel like I’ll never get past all of my trauma. I have found that I not only grow as I go through the process but I also fail—a lot.

 Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

Photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash

I can’t say these tips will apply to everyone because I don’t believe the journey looks the same for everyone. We’re all unique individuals, and our journeys will also be the unique. But here are some things that I’ve found help me as I get through the middle of my journey with trauma. (Note: these are all things I’m still learning to do and definitely have not mastered!)

1. Take time to take care of yourself.

The battle to replace your old belief system with a new one takes a lot of energy and can be exhausting. Make sure to be kind to yourself and do things that give you peace and bring you joy. I usually go and buy some dark chocolate after my EMDR sessions and find time to take a nap to rest.

2. Focus on one new belief at a time.

As my journey goes on, I tend to get overwhelmed and feel despair when I think of all of the new thoughts and beliefs I’m working on. Instead of trying to believe 15 new thoughts, I’m working on focusing on just one at a time. It helps me to write mine out on a large chalkboard I have and display it somewhere I can repeatedly read in my house.

3. Give yourself permission to feel pain.

This one is really hard for me. I’m learning that when it comes to trauma, there are layers and layers of pain to be dealt with. No one likes to feel pain, but I’m told that there’s no other way to get to the other side without feeling the pain.

If you are someone who has experienced trauma, I want you to know that your pain is real. I don’t want to pretend to know your kind of pain, but I do know it can hold you back for too long. Please, don’t wait to find help, because there is so much more to your life than the pain you have experienced.

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How to Help a Loved One with an Eating Disorder

Guest Post by Faith Badders

 Photo by Chansereypich Seng on Unsplash

Photo by Chansereypich Seng on Unsplash

Over time I have learned that my mind can create something beautiful or something dark and destructive. When I was young, I was a pretty content girl and passionate about living my life to its fullest even when times were tough. As I entered my senior year, I started to evaluate my life and noticed how average I was as a student, dancer, tennis player, daughter, sister, and friend. I felt like everything I once was content with no longer measured up to what my mind was telling me I should have become. At the same time, I was dealing with food sensitivities, recovering from a breakup, and embracing the life changes that would come after graduating high school. 

Slowly but surely I started to develop an unhealthy relationship with food. I was hypersensitive to my emotions and how I felt about food; it was if my gut was an irritable monster that wanted to avoid discomfort at all costs. I never restricted and developed anorexia, but I did eliminate a lot of foods out of my diet and obsessively thought about when and what I would eat. I became anxious and even annoyed around food and how much it consumed my thought life. After six months of dealing with this unhealthy relationship with food, I dropped to an unhealthy weight and was not capable of gaining weight back on my own. 

After graduation, I planned on going on a mission trip to a third world country. However, my parents did not let me go because they did not want me losing any more weight. My parents saying no turned my life around, and I am greatly appreciative of their decision. Instead of going on the mission trip, I decided to admit that I was powerless and needed to surrender control. I spent my entire summer at a treatment center and embraced a journey to receive complete healing. Talk about a humbling yet powerful experience. 

Treatment was hard, pushed me to my edge, and grew me as a person. Every day I had to decide to work hard, rest in grace, and receive the help and support needed to get through the program. Even though my family and friends did not always know how to address the situation, they were very supportive and loved me throughout the process. I am very thankful for the people in my life who love me and support me, but I have learned to acknowledge that I, myself, am ultimately responsible for my recovery and maintaining a healthy mind, spirit, and body.

 Photo by Marcelo Matarazzo on Unsplash

Photo by Marcelo Matarazzo on Unsplash

Every person’s journey with food is different, but here are a few suggestions on how to walk alongside them in the midst of an eating disorder.

Have conversations about it—and don’t forget to listen.

It’s easy to avoid difficult conversations, especially when it comes to a sensitive topic like an eating disorder. But broaching the topic opens the door for dialogue and the road to recovery. Ask questions and listen, and most of all, be patient and supportive. Validating feelings, asking questions, and withholding judgment are vital for recovery.

Don’t give quick fixes.

Even though comments like “Just eat more” or “Just look in the mirror—you look great” can seem like a natural response, they can do more harm than good. These statements imply eating disorders are casual problems rather than the complex situations they are. If a statement starts with “just,” think twice before saying it out loud. Instead, encourage your loved one and speak truth about their value as a person.

Offer to help look for professional help.

Finding a doctor or making an appointment with a counselor can be intimidating for many people. Offer to look up providers in the area or to take them to an appointment. Receiving compassionate care can help a person understand any diagnoses they may have as well as screen for any related medical problems. Optimally, eating disorders are addressed holistically, with a team of people helping to talk through nutrition, their relationship with food, and healthy coping mechanisms (counseling was my favorite).

Stay away from shaming.

Stay away from focusing on your emotions and blaming an individual for them (i.e., “I’m scared when you don’t eat” or “I feel guilty that you’re not doing well”). Addiitonally, rather than making comments about actions you disagree with (not eating enough, hurting yourself by doing this, etc.), ask about the emotions or motivations behind these actions. Instead, ask questions about topics like what they find stressful in life or what drives their fear of gaining weight.

Learn about eating disorders.

The more you know about eating disorders, the more likely you’ll be able to offer empathy and positive support. Researching will help you understand what kind of treatment your loved one might need, and it will also make you aware of personal challenges or biases you may not be aware of.

Tips for Parents

While these next few are especially useful for parents, we can all implement them in our lives.

Set a positive example.

This goes far beyond what (or how much) you eat. It includes being mindful of your own self-esteem and self-image and speaking positively about yourself and your body. It also includes avoiding criticism about appearance (your own or anyone else’s). In conversation, try focusing on character qualities instead of physical appearance.

Hold your child accountable, but don’t hover.

Instead of acting like the “food police” or trying to force them to eat, set limits. Using natural consequences to their actions instead of “punishments” you prescribe can be much more powerful motivators. For example, when I was in a weakened state, it wasn’t safe for me to go on a trip to Belize, so my parents didn’t allow me to go.

Don’t blame—your child or yourself.

Instead of focusing on the “could have” and “should have” moments in life, look forward and identify action points you can take today. Evaluate what you have learned and how you can incorporate that into you relationship with your child. Instead, continue to provide hope to yourself and your child by focusing on every victory, no matter how small.

Make meals enjoyable.

Eating meals as a family or inviting friends over for dinner can make mealtimes something to look forward to. Having fun with each other instead of talking about the day’s complications or problems can help create a positive atmosphere, which can become associated with food.

Last of all, take care of yourself.

Make sure you have a support system where you can talk about your struggles and the complex emotions around a loved one with an eating disorder. Consider setting aside a regular time when you can process verbally with a friend, family member, or therapist. By practicing self-care, you’re not only ensuring you can parent your child well, but you’re also modeling self-love in a practical way.

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Carry Me Through: Hospitalization for Mental Illness

Guest Post by Hailey Rebecca McNutt

  Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

Going to a mental hospital can be incredibly scary, both for those who are actually going to be attending therapy services and for those who love someone who is going to be in the hospital. As a social worker who works in both inpatient and outpatient services, I see a wide variety of reactions to being in psychiatric treatment. Some patients are excited to get better; others deny their problems. Some family and friends are supportive, and others blame patients for their condition.

Overall, the main difficulty in receiving psychiatric treatment is the stigma and prejudice our society holds against mental health. I’m here to help you understand what mental health really is, what treatment is, and how to help yourself or your loved ones walk through the journey towards wellness and recovery.

Mental health is being able to find a healthy equilibrium towards what we perceive as positive and negative emotions, difficulty and good times, and day to day activities. Mental illness is generally categorized as behavior and thought processes that augment our ability to perform daily tasks and maintain our life balance and relationships in a healthy fashion. Mental illness can be caused by environmental factors, difficult situations, or a chemical imbalance between the necessary chemicals that keep our minds well and stable.

To help mental health, people can be encouraged to attend therapy sessions. However, if the patient is not well to the point that they are seeing or hearing things or are having suicidal thoughts, it is recommended to bring them to the hospital setting.

An important thing to remember about patients in a hospital setting is that they are not different from individuals who have any other type of illness.

There is debate about the illness model towards mental health as well—some professionals say that maladaptive behaviors are caused by people doing the best they can in traumatic and chaotic situations and learn these thought patterns and behaviors in order to survive. In any circumstance, our culture has taught us that mentally ill individuals are “crazy,” “deranged,” or “beyond help.”

We tend to think that these are people who can’t get better and don’t want to seek treatment, when in actuality our hospitals are filled with people who are open to receiving help and desperately want to get well.

It is imperative when working with mentally ill people to remind them that this is what they are—people.

They are people who are battling something very difficult, not very different from a physical illness. If your friend or family member were in the medical hospital for a life-threatening condition, what would you do? You would probably tell your community members, ask for prayers, send flowers and visit them regularly.

However, this isn’t how psychiatric patients are generally treated. They are seen as a secret, a blemish in the family, to hide until they’re well. This type of mentality from family members doesn’t help the patient feel like a person, which is the most helpful feeling when dealing with a mental illness.

Instead, I encourage friends and family to visit often, remind their loved ones how meaningful and vital they are to their lives, and encourage them that they will feel better and that this is a season you are willing to walk through with them.

I believe that simply changing the language we use about mental illness could really help the patients—saying “you have depression” instead of “you are depressed.”

This identifies patients by their strengths rather than their weaknesses. It shares hope and love instead of scolding or asking why they ended up here. People with mental illness are trying to make sense of the vibrant world that lives inside them, and the best medicine is compassion and empathy.

Once an individual goes through inpatient treatment, they will mostly likely step down to outpatient treatment. This typically looks like attending therapy services for several hours a day and then going back to the patient’s typical home life.

During this time, I encourage family and friends to help the patient get back to a normal lifestyle. Encourage them to exercise, eat well, visit friends and family, and look for a stable place to work if they do not have one.

It is best not to constantly remind them of the hospital but instead tell them how much they’re improving and remind them of the future. This will help them try to put their acute care behind them and feel like a person again, which is so useful to their recovery.

Mental health is a difficult topic for everyone, but it is vital to the wellbeing of caretakers and people who become patients. Overall, it is best to lead with kindness and compassion and help everyone feel respect and dignity. In this place of rest and love, healing thrives.

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Mental Illness: Supporting the Whole Family

 Photo by  Annie Spratt  on  Unsplash  

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash 

Sometimes we're the ones experiencing mental illness, sometimes it's our friends and family...and sometimes it's a loved one's family member. It could be a best friend's mom, a cousin's boyfriend, or a coworker's daughter. We begin to find ourselves "supporting the support," or offering our encouragement to the ones directly supporting someone with mental illness.

Since this can be a difficult situation to navigate, last week I sat down with my friend Kate, who happens to be a wealth of wisdom when it comes to having a family member with a mental illness. Part of Kate’s story includes her mom receiving a bipolar diagnosis when Kate was young. 

While each person’s experience is different (and a lot depends on what kind of mental health struggle a family member has), Kate shared some practical tips we can all learn from. Here are a few of the suggestions she offered.

It’s really important to show grace.

When Kate’s mom began experiencing symptoms of mental illness, her whole family had a hard time. Her sisters struggled with the change in their mom’s behavior, and her dad had to learn a whole new way to talk to his wife. As a family, they were still identifying triggers and learning how to help their mom cope—and learning to cope themselves. 

When it became apparent that loud worship music at church was a trigger, her family began skipping church based on how her mom was doing. It was extremely helpful (and healthy) when others responded with grace rather than judging the family for being absent some Sundays.

Speculation will only feed circles of gossip, and aggressive questioning conveys a greater interest in drama than in a person's well-being. Instead of these responses, consider telling an absentee's family member, “Say hi to so-and-so for me” instead of asking why or passing judgment.

Actions speak louder than words. Invest in the person in front of you.

Kate recalls teachers and others in her life telling her, “I’m here if you ever need anything.” Yet because the relationship they had with Kate was only surface-level, if Kate actually did need anything, she wasn’t likely to come to them.

Certainly, these comments were well-meant. Yet the weight they carried depended largely on the depth of relationship already established. Offers to be there for people aren’t wrong, but they could come off as flippant or pity statements if an established depth of relationship is absent. Bottom line: invest in the person in front of you—as a person first and foremost, not as a victim.

If you’re close to the family, express your concern and check up on them.

“It meant a lot when people who were already a part of my life asked how I was doing,” Kate said. Her best friend would ask how her mom was doing and consistently check up on her. When the people closest to Kate asked meaningful questions and listened, she felt loved and cared for. They walked with Kate through the ups and the downs, and they continued to ask how her mom was doing even after things got better.

The support Kate received from the people she trusted was one of the most important things she experienced during that season of life. If you're walking closely with a family with mental health challenges, know that the love and support you're offering is one of the greatest gifts you could ever give.

Don’t use a serious topic as a conversation filler.

While for most people, “How’s your mom?” may be an innocuous query, when that family member struggles with mental illness, it turns into a deeply personal question. Unless you already have an established, deep relationship with someone, it’s best to avoid using the topic of mental illness as a small-talk conversation piece after church. Not only can it put that individual in an awkward spot, it can also be perceived as gossip. Instead, consider asking about plans for the day or offering news about your own life.

 

It’s okay not to ask about family every time you see someone.

When people constantly asked about her family, Kate remarked that it could ”feel like rapid-fire.” It was exhausting always explaining things or updating people. Sometimes Kate just needed a break from thinking and talking about what was going on at home.

As mentioned before, actions speak louder than words. Be creative about how you show you care. If you’re not walking through life day by day with someone, it’s okay not to ask about their family at every encounter. It doesn’t mean you’re ignoring their pain; you might be alleviating it a little by giving them a break from talking about it.

Never assume.

Today, Kate’s mom is doing great! Occasionally, people who haven’t kept up with Kate’s family will see her and jump straight to saying, “Ohh…how’s your mom?” 

While coming in and out of people’s lives is inevitable, it’s important to distinguish between knowing where a family is at one point in the journey and assuming they’re still there, years later. It can be helpful to start by asking how things have been going instead of assuming someone’s health status has remained static for years.

Know each person is unique and will handle situations differently.

In Kate’s family, this was evident by her sister’s various responses to her mom’s illness. Each one was affected in different ways, and they chose various methods of handling the stress.

Everyone’s experience is different, and each person will have unique needs. While these tips resonate with Kate, they aren’t meant to be a cookie cutter approach. In fact, they’re meant to show just the opposite: that mental illness is a complex issue, and so is walking alongside the family of someone with a mental illness!

 

*Huge thanks to Kate Padilla, who was so open and willing to share stories from the past. Her family has used their experience with mental illness as a catalyst to help thousands of people through Mental Health Grace Alliance, an organization co-founded by Kate’s dad. If you’re looking for Christian mental health resources and programs for individuals and churches, check it out!

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