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The Definition of Trauma

Eve Bampton-Wilton is a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner Practice Lead from Devon. Eve was diagnosed with breast cancer aged 27 and received surgeries, fertility preservation, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and now takes medication. She enjoys being outside keeping active, and is very passionate about mental health. In this blog, Eve talks about trauma.

Trauma is defined as an emotional response to any difficult life event, which involves exposure to threatened or actual death. A cancer diagnosis most definitely fits these criteria. There is no right or wrong way to feel – it is totally unique to you. Those feelings are not an indication of how strong or resilient you are as a person. It can take time for us to fully combine our diagnosis with our sense of self. For me, acknowledging that my cancer forms a part of me, but it is not my whole identity has been extremely helpful. Sometimes, the trauma of a cancer diagnosis can bring up difficult things that happened to us in the past, even as children. When we experience trauma our brains can struggle to make sense of what has happened, and get ‘stuck’. Think of it like a CD that is skipping; our brain tries to go back and replay what has happened to us as a way of trying to make sense of it. This can mean we end up re-living our experiences in some way, like ‘scanxiety’: that horrible moment during any medical procedure where we’re right back where we were in that moment when life as we know it changed in an instant. Going through trauma does not necessarily mean we will develop things like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). But if you are noticing dreams or ‘flashbacks’, where something triggers you to feel exactly like you did during the traumatic time, you are avoiding things which remind you of these times, or you’re always feeling on high-alert for danger, this may indicate PTSD. PTSD is surprisingly common and doesn’t just happen to people in the military. It is treatable but it is important to get the right sort of help. PTSD physically changes the brain and so requires either trauma-focused CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy), or EMDR therapy (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing). These are two approaches backed by evidence. Standard counselling or coaching is not adequate for PTSD, and could make you feel worse. Sometimes we have to do things that feel really uncomfortable in the short term but WILL help us in the long-term. Think about chemotherapy; many of us were put through hell, and still live with some of the effects long after it has finished, but it helped us have a chance at a longer, more fulfilling life. So why do we not invest in our mental health in the same way? Turning back towards something truly terrible might be the last thing we want to do. However having a safe, non-judgemental space with someone properly qualified to deal with trauma, means we can meaningfully process and move on from what happened. Appropriate therapy is not about going over the terrible things that have happened to you, it is about the emotional impact on us of what has happened.Although things like therapy can be incredibly difficult, they will benefit you in the long term. For many (I would predict most), it is only after active treatment is finished and we’re spat out the other side wondering how to re-build our lives, that what has happened to us really starts to sink in. Combine this with the pressure to get back to normal and be grateful to have been given another chance - how many of us really give ourselves the space and support we need to acknowledge all these conflicting emotions? Other than therapy, what can we do to support our mental health? The approach I often take with my patients is to go back to basics;

- Good sleep - A balanced diet - Some sort of movement (if you are not a gym person, don’t waste your time going and instead find something you actually enjoy) - Make time for connections with people. - Make time for yourself, to rest and recharge your batteries - Finally, get help early – don’t wait until things get really bad. In my opinion, mental health support should be a standard part of cancer care. Whether we like it or not, sometimes we have to take our health into our own hands. This is especially true for the BAME community, who are less likely to be listened to and taken seriously and get the treatment (including mental health treatment) they need in a timely way. Many cancer centres will have counsellors or therapists who you can access for free. Or have a conversation with a member of your healthcare team. Look for organisations who will understand your unique experience, such as Black Women Rising. The truth is, living with and beyond cancer is never going to be easy or straightforward. It is something that changes us forever. But that change does not have to be a bad thing – and its okay to get some help to accept and love the person we have become.

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