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Turning Anxiety into Security

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Dealing with Traumatic Stress
Lots of things with children will give your nervous system a jolt: a sudden yelp of pain from the other room, an unexpected call from the preschool director, a dog on the sidewalk lunging at your stroller, and so on. After a few minutes, the fright wears off, and everything settles back down to normal. But sometimes, the shock of an event, or series of related events, is so great as to be truly traumatic. For example, studies have found that mothers whose children have had serious illnesses or traumatic experiences often experience intrusive and intense images or memories, problems concentrating or making decisions, a heightened reactivity, or physical symptoms such as a pounding heart or headaches.

Though less dramatic than having a child in the hospital, other stressors can still have traumatic effects, as one mother described: Mike and I got a baby-sitter for our first night out since Terrell was born. I went over all the instructions and gave her the phone number for the restaurant. When we got home, we heard the baby crying and crying. The baby-sitter said he woke up soon after we left and had been crying since, nearly two hours! Incredibly, she hadn't thought she should call us. I rushed upstairs and finally settled Terrell, but I felt terrible. Since then, I haven't been able to leave him with anyone but Mike. It makes me feel trapped in my house, but I don't care - I can't let it happen again.

Even trauma that is not directly related to child rearing - such as experiencing abuse as a child, sexualized assault as an adult, or spousal abuse* - can cast a shadow over your life as a mother. For example, putting your child in a setting that's like the one in which you were traumatized, such as being left alone with a mate caregiver, can make your heart pound. Trauma can also be vicarious, especially if you witnessed it as an impressionable child. One of Rick's clients saw years of loud, drunken fights between her parents, one of which put her mother in the hospital. She said that, When my kids yell at each other, I feel frozen inside and far away. That's when it's really hard to just be a mom.

If traumatic stress is affecting you, here are some ways to help yourself cope:

  • Really acknowledge the intensity and seriousness of what had happened, rather than telling yourself that you are weak or flawed to have let it get to you.
  • Share your experience with others who care about you. Besides helping you feel better, research has found that talking about a traumatic experience can strengthen your immune system.
  • Consider joining a support group, such as one for adults who were abused as children, or for parents of children with serious illnesses.
  • Take extra care of yourself, with good meals, plenty of rest, and time to relax. Try to maintain familiar routines as much as you can.
  • Seek professional help if you feel panicky, troubled by intrusive thoughts or images, or unable to continue functioning in your job or family. Both counseling and medication have been shown to be quite successful with traumatic stress and other forms of anxiety.
It is estimated that 7 to 38 percent of girls have been sexually molested, 25 to 50 percent of women will be the victim of attempted or completed sexual assault, and 25 to 50 percent will be battered by an intimate partner. (These estimates vary because of the groups studied and the definitions used by researchers.)

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From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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