If your child has a serious medical condition, you know what it’s like to shove your own emotions down deep inside so that you can be there physically and emotionally for your child. He or she needs you. You are their support. It’s no time to let yourself go to pieces. But over time, the emotions associated with trauma that you keep bundled up inside you can become like a poison. That pain in your gut, that ache behind your eyes – research shows that repressing trauma can lead to physical symptoms. Trauma can also literally change the wiring of your brain, leading to problems like depression and anxiety. When a parent experiences a very intense emotional state, but does not have the luxury of being able to emotionally process the experience at the time, it can lead to PTSD-like symptoms.

The fact is that the intense emotions you experience will find a way out. If you can’t let them out in direct response to traumatic situations, they will find their way out much later, in ways you never could have imagined.

If you’re reading this, chances are you already know what bottling up difficult emotions can do. And the problem is that knowing the dangers of repressing your trauma doesn’t really change anything. Even though it might be best for you to express the emotions associated with the trauma of your child’s condition or treatment, you still have to be there for your child. You still can’t let your emotions overwhelm you. And so now, days, months, or years after the fact, you are paying the price for your sacrifice in the form of symptoms that are piling up in your body and pushing in at the edges of your brain.

First, be aware that study after study shows that caregiver wellbeing is associated with better patient outcomes. In other words, taking care of yourself is an essential part of taking care of your child. This may mean forcing yourself to continue your life even during your child’s medical crisis or care. I know that when you have an ill child, self-care can quickly slip down the list of priorities. But in the long run, taking time away from care to recharge and reconnect with yourself might benefit your child more than providing 24/7 care until you collapse.

Then hopefully there will come a time when the acute experience of trauma subsides. Finally, you can breathe again. Often that’s when the symptoms start. Pain. Depression. Confusion. Anxiety. At this point, if you let out your trauma all at once, it will rip you to pieces. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, that is if you can spare months or years to check out from the world while you put yourself back together.

If you still can’t collapse, you will need to find a way to continue functioning while you release all those emotions you stored during your child’s trauma. One way is to find someone to help you “hold” the emotions as you release them. Think of it like carrying a heavy desk: You need someone to hold up the other half. Some of us have family members of very good friends who can help us hold our emotions. For others, this process of “airing out” traumatic emotions can take place in therapy with a licensed professional. Still others will be able to slowly release intense emotions through practices like yoga, massage, or mindfulness/meditation.

The important part is to respect your symptoms for what they are – repressed emotions seeking the light – and to dedicate yourself to finding a way to open the door to these emotions before they bore through your mind and body in their search for a way out. If therapy is unrealistic, try meditative walks. If walking isn’t your thing, try fly fishing. If that doesn’t work, find a support group. The key is to stay proactive, to keep searching for healthy ways to pour out your traumatic emotions in a controlled way. Also remember that things go in waves: You may get worse before you get better, and then after you feel “better” you may get worse again.

Eventually, after what will almost certainly feel like much longer than it “should have” taken, you may find your symptoms subsiding. You may even find something that psychologists call posttraumatic growth. Repressing your trauma can leave you feeling broken. Learning to release it can light the way to an enriched experience of life.

Kristi Pikiewicz
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.
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