The Common Woman’s PTSD
Chances are good you know someone who calls themselves “a light sleeper”. They awaken at the slightest noise, but also can’t sleep if it’s too quiet. They may have told you that their vacation wasn’t long enough, or that they have a hard time relaxing. They may seem nervous, anxious, or wired at times and may voice worries that seem silly to you.
This person is describing symptoms of “hypervigilance”, or a state of being hyper-aware and reacting to perceived threats in an exaggerated manner. As a mother myself, I would like just once to wake up calmly to a baby’s cry, rather than with a jolt and a shot of adrenaline! Though increased awareness in certain situations is necessary and normal, hypervigilance describes being stuck in this state chronically, even in situations where it isn’t helpful. In my Kenmore naturopathic practice, I see this very commonly in moms but we can absolutely apply it to any parent. I’ve also seen it in 60-somethings who are caring for dying parents, 40-somethings with a disabled child, and 30-somethings who have a pet with a medical condition. Aside from their hypervigilance, these people have something else in common: they are caregivers.
Whether they became a caregiver by choice or necessity, they’ve put someone else’s needs at the forefront. As their mind got used to being on high alert for the person they were caring for, that sensitivity started blending over into other parts of their lives that didn’t require it, and it has had negative effects. Because their brain is always listening, their sleep is light and fragmented. They may get sick often because poor sleep and chronic stress have taxed their immune system. They may be exhausted because their habit of “doing for” means they’ve put a lot on their plate, or won’t say no to adding more. When stress disrupts sleep, this lowers your tolerance for stress. It’s a vicious cycle!
I’m betting you’ve never done a search for medical studies on hypervigilance, but if you did you’d notice that on the whole, we’ve only studied this phenomenon in two populations: rats and war veterans. Studies take money and interest, and veterans suffering PTSD that could potentially hurt someone definitely win out for funding over the single mother of toddlers. The military is funding a $2 million study to determine the value of experimental treatments on vets. Unfortunately, no one is going to foot a $2M bill to help moms “chill out”.
Hypervigilance is the common woman’s PTSD, hidden from the public and invisible to the medical research community.
Being a hypervigilant caregiver means energy is always going out, leaving, being poured into your environment (what was that?) and those around you (what do you need?)…and it hardly ever comes back in. There is often very little energy spent on nurturing the nurturer in a way that matters.
If this is you, here is my message: make nurturing YOU a priority, and use help. An empty cup cannot fill itself (or anyone else’s, for that matter).
- Ask for help. Batman had Robin and Obama had Biden. Even those with the most important jobs need help. Whether that means delegating tasks, compromising, or getting advice. There is no shame in this. “I should be able to do this” gets you nowhere if your reality is that, right now, you can’t. When “should” is about external expectations rather than internal morals, there is room to put this weight down.
- Give yourself permission for rest. You are less useful to yourself and the person you’re caregiving for if your resources are ka-put! Carve out time for yourself and protect it. Turn off the phone. Leave emails alone. Immerse yourself in nurturing distraction where you can let go of the caregiving responsibilities. Discuss with others involved about why this is important, not just to you, but to them.
- Forge new (brain) pathways! When the brain does something over and over, it begins to favor that pathway over others, even if others are better. We can learn to reduce vigilance if we know we can depend on others to respond too, so we need to build up the “normal” vigilance pathways by having experiences in which someone else voluntarily handled it and things went fine. Show the brain that “it’s OK if I don’t respond sometimes, because we can trust Person X to do it too.” (See bullet #1 for finding trustworthy Person X). You may have to force this to happen through some mock situations, but these are still helpful in building brain pathways that understand “normal” vigilance is okay.
- Consider whether deeper issues are at play. Is hypervigilance a symptom of unevenly shared parenting? Does it happen that one person “always has to track the details” because the other one “never does”? Maybe a positive feedback loop has been created; because one person is tracking to exhaustion, the other feels free of that responsibility (I don’t need to plan/track/respond because that other person always does).
- Ask your naturopathic physician for their two cents. Hyperactive adrenal glands, imbalanced hormones, and exhausted thyroids can all make this situation worse than it has to be. Addressing these health issues can only help to restore balance to your life!
These points are not always possible. I get it. But take those lessons where you can get them and make it a priority to bring some energy back into your sphere. A tree with a weak trunk is sure to topple, but a tree with a sturdy trunk will hold many generations of canopy (Note here that the trunk is not inherently strong or weak, but is dependent on nourishment from roots!).
This article was written by Dr. Rhea Abbott at Lakeview Family Wellness in Kenmore, WA.
Lakeview Family Wellness is your #1 Eastside and Seattle Wellness Center. We are a naturopathic medical clinic located at the very northern tip of Lake Washington between Seattle and Bothell in the city of Kenmore. At Lake View Family Wellness, we specialize in integrative medicine for the whole person. We emphasize people and not diseases while offering practical, real solutions to conditions and concerns such as: Diet, fitness, preventive care, women’s health, men’s health, cancer, chronic pain, common colds, autoimmune disease, and genetics.
Naturopathic medicine provides alternative, natural solutions for the most stubborn conditions. The doctors at Lake View Family Wellness utilize individualized nutrition strategies, pharmaceutical grade supplementation, intravenous (IV) therapy and a host of lifestyle modifying tools to make sure you reach your health goals. Creating opportunity for your body to overcome disease and surge in health is our number one priority. We hope to encourage and enable you to reach untold heights in your health journey. We look forward to serving you here at Lake View Family Wellness!
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