I wasn’t here in Canterbury when the big quakes struck, I didn’t have to manage my panic and find safety for my children and myself. I watched on TV as the buildings came down and the rubble settled. We arrived soon after, with the emergency workers, and so have had to adjust to a new island, new work and new friends. We have had a different kind of experience, managing the aftershocks without the trauma of the main ones but having to build a whole new life.
When I think about trauma and anxiety in my life I am transported to the time when my Dad died in an accident at home, when I was 15. I was there alone with him, and even now I know that I haven’t recovered - some 32 years later. The trauma of that day stays with me in the way that my body responds when I think about it - I get flushed, tearful and my stomach turns over. My brain can replay the feelings I had, the images I saw and sounds that I heard, with some standing out so vividly - the multi-colour of Dad’s jacket when I found him, the rushing panic of calling the ambulance - the wait for them to come, and the slippers the ambulance driver was wearing - all burned on my brain.
Trauma and anxiety are persistent. And it doesn’t really matter what kind of traumatic experience we go through - the effects are largely the same. In our first movie of this resource “Making everything alright” Dougal Sutherland, a good friend and clinical psychologist from Wellington, takes us through two of the main responses to anxiety after significant events. What I know to be reassuring about his advice, is that we can, in most cases, learn to manage the ongoing effects of trauma and anxiety, and in doing so, help our children manage them.
Even though I may still have some responses to the trauma I went through 32 years later, they are appropriate responses - and they don’t take over my life. And that would be my aim for most of the clients that I see. Anxiety is an appropriate response to some situations - it is fair enough to get worried when your parents split, or when there is an ongoing bully at school, or when life keeps throwing difficulties at you. It is also appropriate for your brain to go into ‘fight or flight’ panic mode, to keep you safe when traumatic events occur. But it isn’t okay if these responses keep happening and keep upsetting life, when the events have retreated.
“Making everything alright” is our latest attempt to give some in-depth methods for use in many situations. It’s a follow on from our first movie “Everything is going to be alright” with some strategies and evidence to back up the themes introduced there. These are certainly not the only things that may help, but they do have a weight of academic research behind them.
For me, the “Making everything alright” came in a similar form - my extended family cosseting us in the days after Dad’s death and then helping us to resume normal life - not to avoid it. My school community responding with sympathy and respect, the ongoing acknowledgement of my feelings and the caring attitudes of teachers as we carried on. Forming new relationships as a result, old relationships deepening. And although I think differently now about spirituality than I did at 15, the spiritual aspect of knowing that there is a collective of minds, and peace to be found, was a force for me as I worked my way through this huge change in my life. These themes, support, community, facing the fear, realising that the gap Dad left could be filled in other ways, were how I managed my way through. And that old chestnut - carrying on.
I wonder what Dad would have thought as he watched me. Maybe he would have said, “It’s okay, everything is going to be all right,” and kept on digging his garden.
1. Psychological Support
Julie Burgess-Manning interviews Dr Dougal Sutherland.
2. Physical and Spiritual Support
Julie Burgess-Manning interviews Neave Ross-Wallace.
3. Community Support
Julie Burgess-Manning interviews Sue Turner.