For a parent, what happens to your child also happens to you. This includes trauma. A child’s chronic illness, serious illness, or medical trauma literally becomes a parent’s trauma. When that happens, it forces your brain into a state of heightened vigilance that can last many years, even long after a child’s condition stabilizes. In this state of constant readiness, your amygdala is always on the lookout for trouble. Small things seem big, and it can be hard to realize that you’re safe. This can make it difficult to open yourself up to relationships — with friends and family, and even with the ill child. The challenge is to get your amygdala to calm down; to reset its baseline readiness so that you reestablish a sense of peace in your life.
The first step is to recognize this over-activation. Here are five signs that the trauma of your child’s medical struggle keeps you in a constant state of readiness in which you are invulnerable to the world around you — both to the pain and struggle that your amygdala expects, but also to the joy and connection that you remember feeling so long ago.
Heightened Reaction to Illness
Any time people around you get sick and especially when the ill child gets a routine sickness, you have a big reaction. Maybe this looks like dropping everything to stay home with the child or rushing to the doctors at the first sign of a cold. But whatever the specifics, even a small sickness (or sometimes a small injury) triggers your brain into the expectation of major upheaval. This small sickness puts you right back into the mode of hyper-functionality that was required to fight for your child’s health and survival long ago.
Whether it’s through your work or your dedication to your family, you stay in constant motion. Because, what would happen if slowed down? You’re afraid that things would bubble up — uncomfortable emotions associated with your trauma that you packed away (consciously or subconsciously) until you had the time and space to deal with them. Now, as long as you ensure that you continue to not have the time and space, you can continue to avoid dealing with these horribly challenging emotions.
Unwillingness or Inability to Feel or Express Emotions
Similar to staying busy, you worry that if you start crying, you may not be able to stop; as long as you stay positive, you can keep the train of your life on the tracks. And it seems like allowing yourself to feel or express emotions has the power to derail you completely.
Memory and Other Cognitive Challenges
When your amygdala is constantly firing, it affects your working memory, and also your ability to access the “front of the brain” tools like executive function. You forget where your keys are, your phone is, your glasses are. Maybe you struggle with impulse inhibition or feel like you’re holding onto everyday cognitive function by your fingernails.
Whether it’s noises or smells or other small irritations, things that didn’t use to bother you, bother you. Again, this is due to your amygdala’s elevated state of activation. Think of it like a pitcher of water: Before your trauma, your pitcher was only partway full and while dropping in the “rock” of an irritation raised the water level, the water remained far below the rim. Now your pitcher is in a constant state of near-fullness. When you add a rock, it overflows.
Your brain evaluates every experience as “safe” or “unsafe,” leading to black-and-white thinking. Over time, you start to unconsciously apply this thinking globally. There is a right and a wrong way to park a car. There is a right way and a wrong way to do the dishes. When you see the “wrong” way, you get frustrated.
If you recognize these signs in yourself or someone you love, the first, most important step is to accept the truth that a child’s medical trauma is still very much a part of your or your loved one’s mental health landscape. For now, that’s enough. Next week we will explore actions you can take to guide this state of traumatic hyper-activation toward post-traumatic growth.
Dr. Pikiewicz earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, CA. She completed pre-doctoral training at the Nan Tolbert Nurturing Center in Ojai, CA, and her post-doctoral internship at the Boulder Institute for Psychotherapy and Research. At both sites, Dr. Pikiewicz worked with a range of adult, adolescent and child clients in individual, couple, family and group settings. She also holds a B.S. in environmental science from Allegheny College and a teaching credential from Western Washington University.