“Feeling safe in someone’s energy is a different kind of intimacy. That feeling of peace and protection is really underrated.” ~Vanessa Klas
I’m now fourteen months into my recovery from complex post-traumatic stress syndrome (c-PTSD aka complex trauma). I’d been in therapy for a number of years before I was diagnosed. I’d been struggling with interpersonal relationships and suffered from severe anxiety and depression, although you wouldn’t have guessed it from looking at me.
There are so many misconceptions about trauma, and before my diagnosis in 2020 I wasn’t very trauma aware.
I was your typical millennial thirty-something woman, juggling a successful corporate career with a jet-setting lifestyle. My Instagram feed was filled with carefully curated photos of me adventuring through Europe, eating flashy dinners at Edinburgh Castle or entertaining friends with cocktails in my flat just off the Water of Leith.
Then 2020 hit. The world was thrust into a global pandemic that saw me lose my job and livelihood, and with it my visa and right to live and work in a place that I had fallen in love with. I went from having a thousand distractions at my fingertips to being confined in a house with nowhere to go and no one to distract me.
I was facing deportation since I no longer had the right to live in the UK, but wasn’t able to leave, as all flights back to Australia were stopped. I was in purgatory, stuck between where I wanted to be and where I had to go, with no way out
Everything unraveled. It’s the only way I can describe the slow, torturous unpicking of my carefully pieced together life. Illusions of control disappeared. Choice and freedom were stripped away, and in the prison of isolation I was facing all the shadows I had so carefully avoided.
In solitary confinement you are forced to face the parts of yourself you can ignore when you have a packed social calendar. We often think of trauma as something that happens if you’ve experienced a sudden violent incident, like a car crash, or if you’ve been assaulted, or if you’ve been in a warzone. Those are all true.
Trauma can also occur over time with prolonged exposure to incidents and events that dysregulate your nervous system.
The conflict in my parents’ relationship created the perfect breeding ground for c-PTSD, as my formative years (before I turned seven) were very volatile with a lot of upheaval, travel, and change.
The stress and anxiety my parents were experiencing, first trying to migrate to Australia from India for five years and eventually going to Canada, resulted in an unfriendly divorce and custody battle. The result: neither parent was available to meet my emotional needs.
What is Trauma?
The American Psychological Association describes trauma as an “emotional response to a terrible event such as accident, rape, or natural disaster.” Dr Gabor Mate goes further, describing trauma as “…the invisible force that shapes our lives. It shapes the way we live, the way we love and the way we make sense of the world. It is the root of our deepest wounds.”
Not everyone who experiences a violent or terrible event will develop PTSD. In fact, only a small portion of the population will develop trauma, even though the majority of people will be exposed to at least one traumatic event during their lifetime.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder is considered to be a “severe reaction to an extreme or frightening traumatic event” and can include flashbacks of the event, intrusive memories and nightmares, avoidance of activities, situations or people that trigger these memories, and hypervigilance and hypersensitivity.
What is complex-PTSD
Complex trauma, or complex post-traumatic stress disorder, occurs after repeated and prolonged incidents that disrupt the nervous system’s ability to regulate itself. Complex trauma occurs from events experienced early in childhood development, and it causes problems with memory and the development of a person’s identity and interpersonal relationships.
Symptoms of complex trauma include negative self-belief, problems maintaining healthy relationships, difficulties expressing emotions, people-pleasing, substance abuse, and ongoing feelings of emptiness.
My diagnosis of complex trauma in early 2021 felt like coming up for air after being held underwater. It was painful; my lungs burned. But there was also relief.
At first it felt like I would never be able to fill my lungs with enough oxygen, and then slowly, incrementally, my body started to trust that the oxygen was there, and I could stop gulping, grasping, floundering.
For years I had been wrapped up in a toxic relationship with a man who was battling his own demons from childhood. For years I never felt like I was doing enough. I was never good enough or smart enough or pretty enough to deserve the relationship, the career, or the life I desired.
I dipped my toes in the shallows of life; I yearned for community and at the same time I pushed it away. I wanted closeness, but it felt suffocating. I wanted success, but it felt terrifying. Every time life would get good, something would unbalance and everything would crumble, so I would have to pick up the pieces and rebuild.
I was stuck in a spiral of going one step forward and five steps back in every area of my life. The pandemic only highlighted this as I was forced to move back to Australia, jobless and in debt.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this constant spiral of stress and loss was a subconscious play that I kept re-enacting. Subtle, insidious self-sabotaging mechanisms from childhood that had kept me safe now tripped me up and kept me trapped. I kept repeating cycles that triggered familiar responses within my nervous system—ones of unsafety, loneliness, and abandonment.
Working on my trauma over the last fourteen months with a trauma-informed therapist, rebuilding safety within my nervous system, learning to self-regulate, to reconnect with my body, with myself, has been at times a harrowing process.
Through it all, it was interesting to see how different people reacted to my pain and loss and grief.
We’re not taught how to sit with our own uncomfortable feelings, let alone someone else’s. We live in a culture that thinks “positive vibes only” qualifies as a spiritual practice, when in reality, we need to be able to witness and love our shadows in order to fully heal.
If someone you love is going through a hard time, if you know someone who is struggling, here’s some advice on how to hold space for them, from someone who has been on the receiving end of well-meaning but unhelpful suggestions throughout my recovery.
Holding space for someone is essentially about being fully present for someone else. This means no agenda, and a judgment-free zone.
Check in with yourself first. Are you ready, willing, and open to being fully present with this person right now? Are you able to leave your opinions, suggestions, and personal experiences at the door?
If not, that’s okay. Self-care starts with you, and forcing yourself to be present with someone when you aren’t in the right head space will not help the other person.
Let them know that you aren’t in the right head space right now and refer them to a helpline or specialist. Check back in with them to make sure they have followed through and have someone to talk to.
You will be doing both of you a favor. This comes down to co-regulation.
When you are grounded and fully present with someone who is going through a hard time, you are allowing them to “borrow” your nervous system to down regulate when they are in a heightened state of arousal and activation. If your own nervous system is activated, this will just exacerbate what they are feeling, causing more sensations of dysregulation and unsafety.
When you are able to sit with someone and be fully present for them, without judging their thoughts or trying to fix things, this can be a profoundly healing experience for the other person.
Being witnessed in our grief without judgment, pity, or awkwardness removes some of the shame we’re experiencing as we’re processing our difficult emotions.
Often, those with complex trauma did not have their needs met and didn’t have their feelings validated as children. It’s a deeply healing experience to be with someone who cares about you and to feel seen and validated at your most vulnerable moment.
Practice Conscious and Reflective Listening
When we are listening to someone, we’re only half paying attention to what they are saying. Half of our attention is already formulating our response, so we’re rarely ever focused on their words.
Holding space for someone means being fully present and listening, not only with our ears but with our full attention to what they are saying and how they are saying it. Pay attention to their words, but also observe their body language.
Allow for pauses. Silence can feel uncomfortable, but when we’re processing difficult emotions, sometimes we need a little silence to gather our thoughts or sit with what we’ve just said. Don’t try to fill the pauses in the conversation straight away.
Reflect and mirror back what the person has said. This doesn’t have to be verbatim. It could be as simple as “I can see that this situation has really hurt you. I hear that you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed out because you’ve lost your job. I can image that’s really scary. Can you share more?”
This allows them to expand and clarify if they want to, or to just feel like they’ve been heard if that’s all they wanted to share.
Observe Without Judgment
Be willing to listen without judging what the other person is saying or how they’re interpreting their experience. Those of us with complex trauma grew up being hypervigilant and aware of the emotions of the people around us. This was integral to our survival in childhood.
This means you need to be aware of your responses, both verbal and non-verbal, to what we are expressing. Listen with empathy and compassion, and stay open to what we are sharing, even if you disagree.
Even if you think other people have it worse.
Even if you have a solution.
You may feel like we are overreacting, but often trauma triggers reactions to something we experienced in the past. When we’re triggered, we’re not only reacting to the situation we are currently facing, but also the unprocessed emotions from the previous situations. We’re dealing with the past and the present simultaneously, and it can feel overwhelming.
Being witnessed by someone who cares about us without judgment when we’re triggered is a deeply healing experience. Often, those of us with trauma, depression, and anxiety already feel ashamed about our emotions and reactions, so having someone witness us without judgment can be liberating.