Vicki Peterson

@vicki-peterson-3 | contributor
Super Contributor
Vicki Peterson is a neurodivergent screenwriter and author who makes daily peace with multiple physical and mental health challenges, including complex PTSD.

New Parents Still Need to Prioritize Their Own Mental Health Recovery

I never disclosed that I was an abuse survivor to the staff at the hospital where I gave birth to my first child, but when I was in my 50th (yes, 50th) hour of back labor and third hour of pushing, a nurse took my husband aside and asked him if I had a history of sexual abuse . She explained that she “sees this a lot” where labor does not progress well in traumatized women. I eventually gave birth to my magically perfect child, but I was too lost in the pain, past and present, unable to think, speak, or function, due to what I now understand to be complex PTSD (C-PTSD). I didn’t know it as trauma at the time; I only knew it as shame. All I was able to feel when I brought a magnificent being into this world whom I love with my whole heart was a debilitating toxic shame for already not being enough. My first task as a mother, and I could not give my child a smooth start. I carried that shame into the following days, weeks, and months when I failed to breastfeed. Shame stayed up with me all night while I pumped instead of sleeping. When lack of sleep pushed me to my limits, shame pushed me over the edge. I fell completely apart due to untreated, minimized, and ignored depression , anxiety , panic, and PTSD all expressed as fear and shame because I was terrified of messing up my own kid. Being a new parent is hard enough, but when one must also manage their own mental health issues amid caring for the needs of their baby, it may sometimes feel impossible. Many new parents agonize over making the right decisions for their child, especially in the first year when the words “crucial age of development” are stamped onto their minds. However, in caring for their baby, the mental health needs of new parents tend to get tossed out with the bathwater. Moms with a history of mental health needs are exponentially more likely to experience anxiety and depression during pregnancy and postpartum, yet few (in the United States) are given more than a pamphlet and a prescription to understand, process, and cope. Even more so, survivors of childhood trauma face a particular challenge when having children of their own. The decision of whether to have children is often related to childhood trauma . Pregnancy, birth, and the “fourth trimester” where the baby needs constant contact is challenging for almost anyone, but childhood trauma survivors who are new parents may feel an extra need to “prove” they are worthy parents, both to themselves and anyone else who may be watching. With all this added stress, some trauma survivors are incredibly resilient when faced with new parent challenges, because it gives them something to focus on other than their own past. After all, being on call to a tiny human 24 hours a day requires new parents to be in constant survival mode, and it’s easy for trauma survivors to park here without even realizing they are dissociating or lost in their own familiar trauma responses. Survivors survive, and they will survive the challenges of being a new parent. But in order to thrive and to be truly present for parenthood, it means taking excellent care of their own mental health . Trauma recovery and mental health maintenance is a lifelong process. Being willing to reprogram old brain junk at every new stage of life requires courage with every step. New parents often receive tons of unsolicited “advice” on caring for their child, which can add to the already gargantuan load of stress and pressure for a trauma survivor. I would never presume to give blind advice to a new parent without knowing their situation, but I can now give advice to myself. Here’s what I needed someone to tell me: “Hey, I know it doesn’t feel like it right now, but you’ve got this. Before you say, do, or think anything else, get some sleep. Like, a whole eight hours all at once. If your circumstances absolutely can’t allow it, hang in there and don’t make any judgments about yourself until you can. Promptly punch anyone in the throat who makes you feel like any less of a mother because you can’t breastfeed, make your own baby food, or exercise daily. Take your meds. Acknowledge your limitations — they make you human. You don’t need to go to that mommy playdate that gives you social anxiety . The only requirement is to love yourself and love your child.” By the way, I now have nearly 18 years of parenting experience, and my oldest graduates soon. Turns out he’s pretty great, and our relationship is founded on mutual love, trust, and respect. Yesterday, I got a call from the school psychologist who was assessing my youngest, and she told me how much he talked about his love and admiration for his parents and siblings, whom he considers his “best friends.” And while I may not be able to keep my kids from experiencing their own mental health challenges, I am committed to supporting them through it. For me, what makes me able to claim my status as a great mom is prioritizing mental health , especially my own.

What It’s Like to Set Boundaries as a Childhood Trauma Survivor

Healing can be a long and often lonely process, especially when it’s from childhood emotional abuse and neglect. There’s an entire lifetime of coping mechanisms survivors must unravel before they can decide what to keep and what to toss out. The process of becoming who you really are is tough for anyone, but for those who survived childhood abuse, it can mean learning fundamental aspects of development that were previously denied. When a baby learns their caretaker is unreliable, throughout life, it can be extremely difficult to believe other close relationships will be reliable. To cope with this sort of cognitive dissonance, some survivors may become combative and antisocial. Some may overcompensate and smother relationships to feel “worthy” of them. I’m the kind of childhood abuse survivor who learned to cope by being extremely self-sufficient. I hid behind the masks of “I’m fine” and “that’s OK.” I didn’t require much from my relationships because I knew on a visceral level I would probably be let down. Instead, I was agreeable. I was as low-maintenance as a person could get. I was pleasant and easy to be around. I made others feel comfortable and I never challenged them. I was soft and gentle around aggression and anger. I made other people look and feel better than they really were, and I downplayed my own talents and accomplishments. Well, guess what? The easier I made life for others, the harder I made it on myself. I grew into a lifelong habit of never expecting others to step up and be better, and as a result, I created a self-fulfilling prophecy. I made it easy for others to take advantage of my goodness. I made it easy for others to neglect me. Meeting others’ needs while having none of my own creates virtually zero external conflict. My agreeableness made others feel close to me on the surface, but what it really did was keep them away. By never expressing needs or requiring more from others, I became a stranger to myself. As I awaken to who I really am, I can no longer live a life where I deny myself to keep the peace. I’ve decided the people I love deserve to get to know me better. I long for intimacy. I long to be known. And with intimacy, there’s vulnerability. To let others see who I really am, I must open myself up for the possibility of heartbreak. To draw closer, I must ask others for more, and asking for more invites more conflict. The whole point of healing from trauma is to learn how to be in close and trusting relationships with others while also learning how to nurture yourself. Many years ago, when I learned what boundaries were, I made a point to have them. Now, as I continue to grow and heal, with each new level of self-understanding, more boundaries are necessary. When someone like me tends to diffuse conflict by being agreeable, boundaries can seem counterintuitive. Saying no to others makes people upset, and this conflict is painful, especially when the people around you are not used to hearing “no.” Conflict is a double-edged sword. It is scary because it puts you at the mercy of others, but it is also the very thing that draws you close. Without conflict, people drift apart, and never get to the deeper, more important issues of life. Because of the arduous journey to heal my own childhood trauma, I have decided I am worthy of a life where others are more aware of my needs and desires, and I plan to incorporate more opportunities for others to meet them. I have decided to face conflict head on rather than avoid it. I have decided I am worthy of asking for more than the bare minimum to survive, whether the terms are emotional or financial. I am letting go of pretending to be easy and agreeable. Now, in theory, this is a beautiful opportunity to draw closer to the people who really love me. In reality, it feels like the whole world is crashing down, because I know from experience some will not pass this test. I also know from experience how important it is to move on from those people to find the ones who will love me in the way I need to feel loved. When someone suddenly puts up a healthy boundary where there previously was none, it’s not easy or pleasant for the other person. It’s often met with hostility. The other person resists the change because it often means their own way of life will be challenged. These are necessary growing pains. When one person puts up a healthy boundary, the other person in the relationship must also grow and adapt with it, or the relationship won’t work. For someone like me, this is a terrifying, but necessary process for survival. I’ve let go of enough toxic people in my life to know how painful but important it is to do so. Yet, even more scary than letting go of toxic people is needing to have healthy boundaries with the ones you love. If the one you love does not respond well to new healthy boundaries, you might have to let them go, too. Perhaps they only loved you for the surface-level, agreeable version of you, and not who you really are. When you ask for more, it’s a real possibility to discover someone you love doesn’t want to grow with you. It’s especially difficult to confront someone who, like me, avoids conflict to cope. There may be a complication of panic and fear that has to be dealt with before getting to the issue at hand. When two people suck at healthy conflict, resentments pile up while they both float through life saying, “I’m fine” and, “That’s OK.” Those resentments build until one day, the people who seemed to always get along so well are suddenly lost and miserable. They then have to face a choice. They can either both learn healthy boundaries and confrontation together, or they will keep drifting apart. Deciding I am worthy of more triggers anxiety for me because it’s something I can’t do all on my own. I need to be in relationships with others who agree I am worthy of more. As someone who copes by being overly independent and self-reliant, the vulnerability required to be in healthy relationships with others can feel terrifying. I must let go of the safety net of being “fine” and say something very difficult: I need you. I need your help. I need (blank). If trauma made you believe the lie that having needs in a relationship is off-limits to you, I know you get me. But behind all of this, of course, is the fear of not being enough to be loved. It’s a fear childhood trauma survivors often know extremely well because at a critical developmental point in their life, someone cared for them so insufficiently that their fears came true. If I can believe that I am worthy of more in spite of the heartbreak of letting go of those who don’t, I can heal.

When Overachieving to Cope With Childhood Abuse Doesn't Work

My go-to method of coping with the trauma of childhood abuse and neglect was to achieve. School, and eventually work, were my escapes. They were the places I got positive reinforcement for doing a good job, and I was always eager to please. At home, if I did a good job, it would either go unnoticed or there would suddenly be some alternate criteria that meant I failed. To escape at home, I read. I was less likely to be a target if I made myself invisible with a book. While there’s plenty of external positive reinforcement for achievement, on the inside, I felt like a fraud. Success felt empty because it could not be a substitute for love and acceptance. In kindergarten, I read and worked at a fourth-grade level. I was told this many years later by my mother, who added that she made sure to play down my aptitude so as to not upset my older brother who struggled to read. I don’t think it occurred to her families can celebrate each other’s strengths, even when they are different. If I did anything that stood out, I was quickly ushered to the background. I was expected to do well in school, but my parents never asked me about what I was studying or bothered to look at my homework. It never occurred to either of us they could, and maybe should, engage me intellectually, or at all. They expected me to be totally independent, which was fine by me, because depending on them for anything led to disappointment. In my junior year of high school, I figured out I had enough credits to graduate early if I took some additional classes at the local community college. It meant a total of nine classes, in addition to a pile of activities I was involved in at school, but I was motivated to leave home as soon as possible. The added bonus was it kept me so busy, I was rarely home anyway. With great relief, I left for college two months after my 17th birthday. I drove myself 2,000 miles away to start my own life. At school, I watched my new roommate say goodbye to her tearful, sweet mother, who had driven her to school and helped her get settled into our dorm. I had already been emotionally living on my own for so many years I had forgotten having an emotional attachment to a parent was normal. For me, when things got hard, I got busy. I was accustomed to working long hours, and often I was rewarded for them. At school and work, I excelled, but no one, except for a small handful of my closest friends, knew about the abuse. Even then, it would take years for me to tell those I was close to about some details. My external persona was to be positive and motivational to others. I was a mentor and a leader. I looked out for others. I excelled in my work. I was called “inspirational.” I treated people with the encouragement and praise I never got at home, and being that person for others helped me create distance from my own pain. However, over the years, the underlying effects were eating away at me. I worked myself into exhaustion, but nothing I accomplished seemed like it was “enough.” Success felt empty because it had been my only option for survival. It was not a choice, but a compulsion. I struggled with survivor guilt over what I had achieved. Statistically, I should not have fared as well as I had, given the prolonged exposure to sexual and psychological abuse. Over the years, my brother became debilitated from serious mental illness, and the complications from it haunted me. Our ways of coping were completely unalike, but we had been unfairly compared to each other throughout our lives. He fell into many of the same toxic patterns of our parents, and I had internalized the message any success on my part would steal his glory. I eventually went no-contact with my family, and I thought I had moved on. In my work, I racked up multiple achievements. I had a loving, supportive, and safe marriage. In spite of my anxiety over being a better parent than my own, my kids turned out to be well-adjusted, amazing little people capable of love and empathy. I had broken the cycle. Still, I felt little satisfaction, because nothing could fill the void, which for me was the love and validation I needed as a child, but never experienced. Hard work and perseverance gave me opportunities that helped lift me out of my abusive past, but it could not heal me. Sucking it up and pretending I was fine could get me through a day, a week, or even a season, but it could not get me through life. The deep healing I needed could only be accessed by first examining the vast depth of the wound. I’ve been committed to growth my whole life, and objectively I know I am considered a success story. But it took years to grieve the losses in my life. Only now am I finally starting to feel like I’m allowed to take credit for a lifetime of decisions that put me on a path of trauma recovery. I’m now middle-aged and mid-career, but in many ways I feel like my life is just beginning. Finally, I can enjoy who I am. Finally, I can enjoy what I do. Finally, I know the difference.

Why Netflix's 'Maid' Could Be Triggering for Abuse Survivors

Netflix’s “Maid” was released at the beginning of October and is on the way to becoming the streaming network’s biggest limited series. The story opens when Alex escapes from her alcoholic husband in the middle of the night, along with their 3-year-old daughter, Maddy. As the series unfolds, Alex fights for her daughter’s safety and security while she navigates the ins and outs of low wages, underemployment, homelessness, social services, housing assistance, food insecurity, custody battles, and toxic family relationships . “Maid” depicts an honest and realistic picture of what it’s like to leave an abusive relationship in America. As a storyteller and a trauma coach, I want “Maid” to be necessary viewing for anyone who has survived domestic violence and/or emotional abuse . Those who have experienced emotional abuse should expect the show to be triggering. Prepare to watch it according to what feels right and safe for your needs, whether that’s in small amounts, or when there’s time for processing and self-care afterward. For those who recognize the patterns and are well down the road of trauma recovery, it may feel validating to see one’s own experience depicted in Alex’s. But what makes “Maid” truly powerful is this: Many who watch this show will resonate deeply with Alex but may not consider their own experience as “valid” abuse . They may be triggered but may not understand exactly why. I remember watching “The Color Purple” many years before I came to terms with my own experience of emotional and sexual abuse , not understanding entirely why the film made me weep more than anyone else in the room. My own discovery that my childhood traumas did in fact qualify as abuse felt like an epiphany, even though I had been dealing with the impact for decades. That epiphany led me toward understanding trauma on a much deeper level than before, and helped me resolve many toxic patterns for good. Many who watch “Maid” may at first feel like Alex, who explains to her social worker that she doesn’t qualify for domestic violence services because her husband doesn’t hit her, and that resource should go to the women who are “really” abused. Denial and minimization are common forms of coping that both abusers and victims may use to avoid the pain of reality. It’s through Alex’s discovery that her ex-husband’s terrifying rages and the ways he blocks every possible route to leave him by controlling all the finances does in fact count as abuse . That realization starts her on a journey of inner recovery and resolve to break the cycle of abuse that also existed in her own childhood, so that her daughter has every opportunity to live to her full potential. I see “Maid” as a love letter to those who choose the difficult but necessary path of escaping their abusers at all costs. Most importantly, it does not make light of how nearly impossible it is to break free and start over with nothing but your own resolve for a better life. It also empathizes with those who remain trapped. My hope is that the world will see Alex’s character as the hero she is, and resolve collectively to do better in helping survivors of emotional abuse get the support they need. For many, “Maid” could be the story that wakes people up to their own traumas surrounding domestic violence, poverty, and emotional abuse . If you feel triggered by the depictions of emotional abuse and neglect , domestic violence, and poverty in “Maid,” chances are you’ve experienced something traumatic in your life and could use some extra support through counseling, therapy, coaching, or other therapies. If this resonates, but you find yourself making excuses, minimizing the pain, or doubting your own experience, please let “Maid” be your wake-up call that your experience is valid. Many of us have been right where you are, and we are here to tell you that the struggle for healing and growth is worth it. You matter. Your story matters.

When Closure and Healing Feel Impossible After Emotional Abuse

One of the most difficult aspects of leaving an emotionally abusive person is there is often no closure. Few people really understand what it’s like to survive a psychological abuser. An abuser may claim they don’t understand your point of view, but they often will never attempt to try. In addition to spending the entire relationship feeling misunderstood and shut down, the survivor of an emotional abuser must pass through a firewall of gaslighting, manipulation and character assassination when they leave. They may use whatever resources they have to attack you, whether that’s your own friends, family, finances or children. Abusive people may twist reality to make their victims look like abusers and themselves look like the victim. Additionally, escaping an abusive person almost always means losing others who enabled the abuse or who became toxic by proxy. All of this results in a deep longing for the survivor to be understood. Survivors will often feel a variety of symptoms, including extreme frustration, confusion, anxiety and hypervigilance. They often fear they are going “crazy.” Not only is their self-esteem destroyed, a survivor may worry they can no longer trust their own thoughts. They may go over every interaction with the abuser looking for clues to when or how they might’ve caused the poor treatment. They might feel guilt or shame that they weren’t “enough” for the abuser. Perhaps they don’t understand how someone could seemingly love them one minute, and completely disregard them the next. Not only is this form of abuse devastating to experience, but it often takes much longer to process and heal. Because an abuser often does not apologize or take responsibility for their behavior, it takes much longer for their victim to get the closure they need to understand what happened, heal and move on. Survivors desperately need people who get it, can help them verify the facts and empathize with how devastating it is to experience emotional abuse. As a fellow abuse survivor, I’m here to tell you surviving emotional and psychological abuse makes you a freaking warrior. Survivors are true heroes. To escape the abuse, they had to take a giant leap into the unknown. Often, they had to walk away from everything they once knew. Often, the only ones they had to lean on were themselves. They were willing to put everything on the line to be free from abuse. Often, taking these steps put them at risk for further harm. Survivors often don’t give themselves nearly as much credit as they deserve, but they are walking miracles. But on most days, survivors don’t feel miraculous. They are sad, hurt, confused, angry and long for closure they may never get. Due to trauma bonding, many will even miss their abusers. Due to gaslighting, many doubt their own experience, even when it was pure hell. When a survivor feels this way, it’s time to shift focus. Understanding and closure from an abusive person will often never happen, so it’s important to feed that need in other ways. The more a survivor can find and surround themselves with people who understand psychological abuse, the better. Trauma-informed therapists and trauma recovery coaches get it. Group therapy and online communities help to reinforce and validate the experience. The key is this: Whenever a survivor feels the urge to want or need anything from their former abuser, they must turn it around and meet the need through a supportive, safe person or community. Sometimes, when I am feeling particularly worn down, I just need to hear someone speak kindly to me. When it’s not logistically possible to call on a close friend, I listen to guided meditations. Audibly hearing another person’s voice speak loving and encouraging words can go a long way to drown out the abuser’s voice in my head. Psychological abuse is a relational trauma, and the pathway to heal is through healthy relationships. Finding and establishing those relationships after trauma doesn’t always happen overnight, but every little step toward them helps. Not everyone will understand your trauma. The ones you want and need to understand may not. But there are many people who do, including the many communities here on The Mighty, and we are waiting for you with open arms.

Here's How to Cope with The 'Small' Traumas of COVID-19

During the pandemic, we had to make less-than-ideal adjustments to our lives. Some of us were alone, and some of us were not alone enough. Some of us were expected to accomplish the seemingly impossible while working from home, while others risked their health just to show up to work. Some were laid off due to COVID-19 challenges. Some of us already had mental health concerns before the pandemic, and even more live with those concerns today. All of us were distanced from the social networks that bring us joy, belonging and connection. Some of us felt trapped in violent households and situations. Some got sick, while many passed away. Even if none of these examples apply specifically to you, we’ve all felt the collective trauma from COVID-19. The specifics can add up, even if they seem tiny at first. Maybe working from home didn’t seem so bad, even though you had to work with a toddler on your lap. Or maybe your teenager earned good grades through distance learning, even though they went an entire year only seeing peers through a screen. Whatever your circumstances, chances are that you worked to adapt to the “new normal.” While adapting to a situation is a wonderful skill to have, it can also mean that we become numb to the real emotional toll that big change can have. A common coping mechanism when going through hardships is to minimize the experience. Statements like, “It wasn’t that bad,” “It could’ve been worse,” “It wasn’t as bad as X had it” or “At least…” are common ways that people may discount what they’ve been through. The problem with labeling something as “better” or “worse” than someone else’s circumstances is that it blocks us from hearing what our mind and body are really trying to tell us. When we dismiss or invalidate our own situation, it disrupts the healing process and prevents us from fully processing the event. It doesn’t make these issues go away; instead it can create feelings of shame for “not having it as bad” as someone else. When we don’t acknowledge small or big challenges in our lives, they get pushed into our subconscious minds, and it’s even more difficult to pinpoint. When this shift happens, our bodies may respond in several ways. We can feel tired “for no reason,” anxious about “nothing in particular” or overwhelmed about “nothing.” We may not understand why we feel extra stressed out, and it can be a sign that we have some unprocessed emotions to address. As the world slowly opens back up post-pandemic, it can feel difficult to process any mixed emotions, especially for trauma survivors. It’s not uncommon for survivors to begin their emotional healing long after the trauma has happened. In crisis the brain consolidates energy to focus on survival, and when the threat has fully passed, then it’s ready to heal. For this reason many people are just now starting to work through the pent-up emotions regarding the pandemic, and some may not be there yet. The excitement of visiting family and friends might also bring feelings of sadness about the lost year that was 2020. If you’ve been looking forward to the kids going back to school, the first day back might still bring up some grief over the difficulty of distance learning. So many of us are also looking forward to large group events like concerts and theme parks, but nerves might still be high about masks and social distancing, even if the restrictions are lifted. If you are feeling overwhelmed about not being able to take on as much as you did pre-pandemic, take a moment  and acknowledge that your brain has taken on a lot of additional stress to cope with the last year. It’s OK to ease back into things slowly and to carve out extra time for rest. Collectively the “little things” our brains had to adjust to and cope with can create a significant amount of added stress. Pandemic pressure is like a power strip plugged into an electrical outlet. We may be able to accommodate 10 more appliances plugged into a single outlet, but the more we plug in, the higher chances of a blown fuse. As we get back to “normal,” it’s important to unplug all the extra demands on our brains, and the best way to do that is by honoring and processing our emotions. Allow yourself to feel your feelings, no matter how small you think the issue is. We’ve all been through so much this past year, and you deserve to acknowledge that within yourself!

8 Overlooked Types of Workplace Trauma

While it’s widely known that soldiers and first responders may develop trauma and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from stressful situations in the workplace , many other common workplace traumas are often minimized or overlooked. While soldiers and first responders are uniquely at risk, workplace trauma and PTSD are not limited to specific careers. There are toxic workplaces in any field, and their environments pose serious mental health risks. Here are some common, but often overlooked, workplace situations that can lead to trauma and PTSD. 1. Not having your work noticed, appreciated or validated Everyone, at any age or level of experience, needs positive feedback and recognition to maintain a healthy sense of self. While our specific needs may mature over time, a workplace environment that ignores, plays down, or criticizes your contributions can mirror many of the same traumatic effects as growing up in a toxic household. Those who did not grow up in an emotionally secure environment are most at risk of staying in a workplace situation that ignores or belittles them. This is a type of trauma that may start in childhood but becomes a repetitive pattern in adulthood. 2. Being taken advantage of because you are a good at your job As Benjamin Franklin noted, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” The problem, of course, is that busy people often become the most dumped-on. Perhaps your department downsizes and everyone is laid off except you. The good news is that you get to keep your job. The bad news is now you are expected to do the work of six people. Alone. Sometimes the most competent, talented and hard-working people get “rewarded” with so much on their plate, it leads to inevitable burnout. These kinds of situations can also become a form of “survivors guilt” where an employee feels they ought to be more grateful they still have a job, or that someone recognizes their contributions, but really they are overwhelmed and grieving. 3. Cutthroat, backstabbing coworkers slash supervisors A common theme in toxic workplaces is that the talented, hard-working employees often become targeted as the ones to “beat.” When toxic coworkers and/or supervisors feel threatened, they put their energies into toppling anyone who appears to be doing better than them. Cutthroat coworkers try to make themselves look good while they purposely dismantle your work. There are all kinds of ways a person can be sabotaged in the workplace, and it’s more common than you might think. 4. Isolation As millions of jobs went remote during the pandemic, many can relate to feelings of isolation at work. Some careers are more communal than others, but there are some situations which can be more isolating than one might think. The kinds of jobs where the only time you see other coworkers is in a staff meeting when no one wants to be there can often feel more lonely than working freelance. When the quality of interpersonal connection is low, mental health risks will rise. 5 . Lack of support from a boss and/or HR When you must report a grievance to your boss or human resources and you are not believed or ignored, it often gets accompanied by a compound experience of stress and trauma . Not only are you processing the grievance, but also the rejection or abandonment of those who are supposed to help you. This is another experience that past trauma can play into. 6. Being treated like you are expendable Jobs where employees are told, directly or indirectly, that there are plenty of others dying to take their place, add loads of unnecessary stress. This form of manipulation happens as much in minimum wage jobs as it does in high status, or “desirable” jobs. People who feel secure in their jobs often perform better, not worse. Fear of losing your job to the “competition” only adds distraction and stress. 7. Workplace discrimination There are many types of workplace discrimination, but I want to especially acknowledge the challenges that mothers of young children faced during the pandemic. Two million women left the workforce in 2020.  On average, women earn 82 cents to the dollar than men , and women of color earn even less. Gender inequality is a complex issue, yet it’s so pervasive and commonplace, it’s easy to overlook. 8. Lack of benefits, paid time off or fair wages From attaining a living wage to inadequate or unaffordable healthcare, millions of Americans, despite their best efforts, face an inordinate amount of stress to simply survive. Fewer companies offer jobs with full benefits. Many cannot afford to take off work when they are sick or have a family emergency. Additionally, the “gig economy” that offers some flexibility to earn an income does not come with any of the benefits associated with a full-time job. All of this adds up to the perfect storm of stress-related challenges, and the most at-risk are also the least likely to have access to mental health support. Lack of living wages, paid time off and access to affordable healthcare are workplace traumas with far-reaching effects that impact everyone.

Toxic Work Environments Can Destroy Mental Health

With post-pandemic employment on the rise, many are looking for opportunities to find low stress work environments. While there are some careers that are certainly more stressful than others, any job is a stressful job if it’s in a toxic environment. Working in environments where we don’t feel safe or cared for can be traumatic. The additional stress of handling a bad boss, a belligerent customer or a burned-out coworker can lead to declines in physical and mental health short term, and serious chronic health conditions long term. Even if people do excellent work, working in a demoralizing environment often contributes to feelings of low self-esteem and inadequacy. Conversely, work performance suffers when the thought, “I don’t want to be here,” constantly prods in everyone’s head. For many, it’s not the work itself, but difficult people that add toxic stress. Bullying and abusive behavior is everywhere, and nearly one in five people report experiences of psychological aggression in the workplace. The higher the aggression, the lower the job satisfaction and performance. Additionally, narcissistic and psychopathic behavior from a supervisor in the workplace, which is a common contributing factor for toxic stress, is not only overlooked but often rewarded. Many of those same behaviors may equal success in a competitive environment . People who have experienced childhood abuse and neglect are particularly at risk of staying in a toxic work environment far past their window of tolerance, fearing repercussion for speaking up or asking for more support. When psychologically abusive behavior seems “normal,” it’s harder to recognize the red flags in a workplace. Perhaps you try harder to please a boss who can’t be pleased. Perhaps you pick up the slack for the ones slacking off. Perhaps you take everything on so that no one else can let you down. Perhaps you’ve tried standing up for things before, only to get shut down. Bottom line, if you work in an environment where you don’t feel safe, seen or heard, it’s time to look elsewhere. Most are not in a position to immediately quit a toxic work environment , but it is important to consider and prioritize mental health as a factor in deciding whether to stay or go. Maybe the job has benefits that make it hard to leave, or the location makes it easy to pick your kids up from school. However, the more we rationalize toxic environments thinking we’ll “suck it up” for the sake of some other benefit, the more we lose touch with our own sense of identity, meaning and purpose. We humans need to feel like our contributions to the world matter, and that’s often achieved through our connections to the people we spend the most time around. When a work environment is toxic, it robs us of feelings of connection and belonging that we need to feel happy, healthy, and whole. Toxic workplace trauma is valid. Anything that stresses you out or robs you of a sense of connection and wellbeing is worth investigating and correcting. While carrying the responsibilities of your work is honorable, ethical and often necessary, no one needs to carry abusers or abusive environments .

'How Do I Heal Decades of Trauma'

Dear Vicki, How do you heal decades of trauma ? I am 44 and cannot find a therapist that is actually beneficial. ‘Finding a Friend’ is about the worst advice I was recently given. I am diligent and want to heal. Can you help me find a real therapist that deals with C-PTSD and knows what they are doing and not just claims to know how to help? Please! —fleurdelis502 Dear Fleurdelis, Like you, I was in my 40s when I found the right therapist to help me do the deep dive into trauma recovery. I too was offered bad advice to “find a friend,” but none of my friends (even some who were therapists) were equipped to walk with me through shadows as deep and dark as complex post traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). I too was diligent and wanted to heal. My physical health had taken such a big hit from decades of emotional and psychological stress that I felt I had no other choice. I couldn’t work full time. I lived in a state of constant exhaustion. When I finally found the right therapist after decades of attempts, my therapy was not covered by insurance, and the financial strain was immense. I started eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy which cracked me wide open, and I was emotionally dysregulated for much of the week while I processed. Then I’d go back the next week and do it again. The trauma recovery process took everything I had and challenged every facet of my life. That said, I consider myself fortunate, because I eventually found resources which helped. In fact, they saved my life. I still consider myself in recovery from trauma , and I likely will be for life. It’s still easy for me to feel exhausted and overwhelmed. The difference now is that I know how to listen to my body and brain to give it what it needs. I know my triggers. I’ve rearranged my life to only include the people, places and situations that keep me in a state of health and help me thrive. Most of the time, I can maintain emotional regulation. I access support systems and online communities of people who understand, even when loved ones in my immediate circles don’t. Most of all, I see the effects of years of non-linear progress adding up to a healthy lifestyle that I like and choose. Trauma recovery must be individually tailored to your unique and specific needs. The bad news is that it takes a lot of trial and error to find out what that is. The good news is that when you find it, it works. Even though it can be frustrating, the process of finding and claiming what works for you can also be immensely healing, especially if you were previously denied the opportunity to develop your own identity and interests. Trauma -informed therapy is often a cornerstone of trauma recovery, but there are a lot of techniques, treatments and practices which may be better for you than others. In addition to therapy, there are books, online resources, exercises, retreats, arts-based practices and spiritual practices , to name a few. In addition to therapy, people who live with C-PTSD also might be juggling doctors and medications for the physical complications of stress, from managing migraines, auto-immune diseases, nightmares , clenched jaws, body armoring, gastro-intestinal issues, anxiety and depression , to name a few. As hard as it is to find the right therapist, I’ve personally found it to be even more difficult to find a general doctor who understands C-PTSD. Figuring out the right care plan can be daunting, especially when our medical systems are not well suited for people who live with C-PTSD, but there are some resources to help you get started. A trauma recovery coach usually works in tandem with a therapist to help recommend and tailor a care plan to your specific needs. Coaches at the International Association of Trauma Recovery Coaching specialize in various types of trauma and offer a variety of individual, group and online services. The C-PTSD Foundation is also an excellent resource for support and services that might suit your needs. Therapists who are connected to or recommended by these organizations are a good bet. Dr. Arielle Schwartz (author of The C-PTSD Workbook) and Dr. Ramani Durvasula both have great resources on YouTube and are personal favorites. In addition to emotionally processing past events and releasing trauma that is stuck in the physical body, a big part of healing from C-PTSD is building an identity and self-esteem that reflects your true self. Try brainstorming a list. What sorts of things do you like and enjoy doing? What sorts of things have you always wanted to try? What are some things that matter to you? What makes you feel happy? What makes you feel relaxed? What makes you feel connected to others? The answers might point you in the direction of the kinds of things you need in your care plan. If you are not ready to discover and incorporate these things into your life, have patience with yourself. If you are feeling dysregulated or overwhelmed, start with your sense of safety. What do you need to feel safe? What is something you can do right now to help you feel more safe? What are some things you can do right now to treat yourself with more kindness, patience, and compassion? Try putting your awareness on these questions throughout the day and see what comes up for you. Love, Vicki

Why Some People Doubt Their Own Experience of Childhood Trauma

Even though I could remember many aspects of my own childhood sexual abuse , there were some memories I couldn’t access for a long time. Because I felt I couldn’t objectively “prove” it in a court of law, and because my abusers denied it, I doubted my own memories. Then, after years of trauma recovery, I “remembered” some of the most traumatic details of the abuse . It wasn’t so much that I had completely forgotten them, it was more like I refused to let myself “go there” for so long that it got locked away in my subconscious mind. It was at a time in life where I had already processed so much about my childhood and knew the logical facts about the abuse . It felt as if my brain waited to release the worst information until I was emotionally ready to process it. It’s common for children to remember a traumatic event in fragments, but not have an entire scene pieced together in its complete form. Perhaps a memory sparks from a certain smell, or a particular feeling. Perhaps it’s not a memory of the specific trauma , but an object in the room where it happened, or the type of carpet, or the color of the wallpaper. Perhaps the memory is in word form, like “bad man” but there isn’t a picture to go with it. Perhaps it’s a snapshot image, but the words to describe it can’t form. Sometimes childhood trauma can feel like it happened to another person, like the child watched it happen from outside their own body. Perhaps there is a disconnect between knowing it happened and feeling so terrified or ashamed to admit it happened, that they adamantly deny it, even to themselves. On top of these fragmented experiences, abused children are almost always gaslit by their abusers. If they try to speak up about the event, they are often told they are “overreacting,” or “that didn’t happen” or “they got it all wrong.” Abused children are trained to doubt their own experience, or to fear the consequences of speaking up so much that they convince themselves of the abuser’s falsehoods. The instinct for survival is so strong, some people go their entire lives convinced an abusive parent was “a good person,” and “meant well,” even though a lifetime of evidence shows that they weren’t and didn’t. There are many ways the brain protects itself when experiencing trauma , from short term memory loss, to shutting off particular details of an event, or recalling some details only after a survivor establishes themselves in a lifestyle of safety and security. Because children are particularly vulnerable and dependent on their caregivers for survival, when a child experiences physical or psychological abuse from a caregiver, the brain finds a way to “survive” that abuse by shutting down its ability to process the event. It’s likely that a child who experiences abuse or neglect grows up thinking those events were “normal.” A person can spend decades with unprocessed childhood trauma , not understanding why they can’t regulate their emotions, or get triggered by certain events. When an adult “remembers” childhood trauma that was previously cut off from conscious memory, it may also come with a flood of unprocessed fear, grief, anger and shame . It may feel like waking up from a dream only to realize they lived through a nightmare. Adult survivors of childhood trauma need extra gentleness, patience and compassion from the people around them. The emotional response that comes up in childhood trauma survivors might seem “immature” or “regressive” as if they are emotionally the same age as when the abuse took place. A therapist trained in childhood trauma will help to mirror the kind of empathetic responses needed for the survivor to feel safe enough to process the events. Abusive childhood events are difficult to prosecute in the legal system, for several reasons. However, assumptions that children are lying, exaggerating, or creating a false memory of their experience are almost always unfounded. Studies have shown that in cases of childhood sexual abuse , 97% of the children involved were telling the truth . However, due to the incomplete nature of traumatic memories, the experience becomes difficult to prove in court, and the defense may conflate incomplete memories to insert doubt. Additionally, so much time may pass between the abusive event and the full understanding of the abuse that it exceeds the statute of limitations. If you suspect you were abused as a child, chances are you are right. It’s important to work with therapists trained in trauma recovery even if you suspect but can’t “prove” your abuse . Perhaps the abuser “didn’t mean it,” or “it didn’t happen that often,” but that does not minimize or negate the experience and impact on your development. Sometimes, it’s the adults who minimize, question, and doubt their childhood experiences the most that end up uncovering vast amounts of trauma later in life. Acknowledging that trauma as valid is often the first step on a long but ultimately liberating journey of recovery.