‘ Don’t complain, you have a healthy baby’
It’s easiest to treat what experts call standard PTSD, which results from a single traumatic event. Complex PTSD, which develops after recurring events such as long- term sexual abuse of children, is trickier.
“The PTSD you have from a one- shot automobile accident is quite different than the PTSD that you get from repeated shocking events,” said psychologist Daria Shewchuk, who has an office in New Westminster, adding “simple straightforward uncomplicated PTSD is pretty easy to treat.”
Shewchuk uses counselling, including various clinical and therapeutic techniques, in her work.
UBC’s Cox said there are “wonderful” treatments for PTSD, noting that some people have devoted entire careers to developing them.
As for why some people involved in a traumatic event develop PTSD while others who experience the same thing do not, the U. S. National Institute of Mental Health says risk factors include how often people are exposed to dangerous events, their history of mental illness, how they seek support and help from family, whether they have a coping strategy, and how they respond to stress despite feeling fear. Other factors include pre- existing psychological conditions and whether an individual experienced childhood trauma or abuse.
While professional treatment for PTSD is available, some people find other ways of recovering from trauma.
Christoff educated herself on PTSD, then reached out to others with similar experiences. She started her own non- profit organization, Humanize Birth, which raises awareness about birth trauma by allowing women to share their stories. On another website called Vancouver Birth Trauma, she tells her own story and offers information on birth trauma and PTSD. Christoff plans to file a complaint to the B. C. ombudsperson’s office about her own and other women’s traumatic birth experiences.
“Part of my recovery was understanding how people process trauma in general … and the different kinds of trauma people can go through,” said Christoff.
Baerg had counselling, and later found great comfort in trauma- sensitive yoga, which she tried at Langara College in the spring of 2013. Trauma- sensitive yoga focuses on individuals’ comfort and respecting their space.
“I didn’t realize how impactful the gathering of survivors in a room is,” she said.
“You conceptually know from the statistics you’re not alone,” she said, noting that one in four women have been sexually assaulted, “but to have a visual representation in a room, there’s something supportive as well as sort of depressing, to realize that yes, that statistic does bear forward.”
Marcia, who is now a trauma- sensitive yoga teacher who instructs Baerg, said the practice helps regulate the body for those who feel disembodied after a traumatic event.
For Marcia, yoga was the way out of the turmoil caused by her sexual assault. Four years after the attack and 60 pounds heavier, she was sitting on the couch smoking and watching Oprah Winfrey when she learned that Madonna was using Ashtanga yoga to stay in shape.
“Well, I thought, I could do yoga because it’s easy, and maybe I’ll look like Madonna and I won’t have to quit smoking,” said Marcia.
Over the next couple of years, as she practised yoga, she found her anxiety levels slowly decreasing.
“I noticed that the way I started to see myself in the world began to change,” said Marcia. “I went from someone who saw themselves very vulnerable in a very dangerous world to someone who was very strong and in a world where I had some chances and control.”
Interested in the relationship between yoga, trauma and addictions, she went back to school and completed her master’s in yoga therapy studies. She began teaching around Metro Vancouver, including at the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addictions, where she discovered trauma-sensitive yoga.
That led to further studies at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Mass.
Traumatic events leading to PTSD often result in over- activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which control the body’s “fight or flight” response, she said.
“And that’s a lot of the reason people with PTSD turn to drugs and alcohol, because it helps them to regulate.”
Yoga offers a healthier alternative that helps control breathing, brings selfawareness and regulates the nervous system, she said.
Traumatic events and the ensuing PTSD are harrowing, life- altering experiences, but for those who complete treatment or find ways to cope, there can sometimes be positive outcomes.
These potential positives include a sense of new opportunities, closer relationships with others, an increased sense of personal strength, increased appreciation, and a deepening or change in spirituality, said UBC’s Cox.
• Christoff said her experience changed her previously naive views of how the world works. She also felt a sense of personal growth, and the birth of her second child under better circumstances “made it right, in some sense, for me, personally.”
Her outreach work was a plus too. “Communicating with other survivors also gave me the sense of connectedness with others that I’d never had before.”
For Baerg, the positives were finding trauma- sensitive yoga and being able to talk about her experiences.
“I do feel a lot more comfortable with people, confident … a lot less anxiety,” said Baerg. “It does get better … life is so much bigger than being afraid.” Tyler Hooper is a recipient of the Langara College School of Journalism’s Read/ Mercer Fellowship, given annually to four deserving students to produce a piece of journalism that will add to the dialogue on an issue of public concern. The award is named in honour of Province columnist Jeani Read and her playwright husband Michael Mercer, both of whom believed in helping young journalists begin their careers.