Trauma is Contagious
Like the common cold, influenza, or measles, trauma can actually pass from person to person- airborne and invisible. You don’t have to be exposed to the original source in order to become infected with measles- you can catch it from being exposed to a person with measles. The same is true for trauma. You don’t have to be exposed to the original trauma in order to feel and ‘catch’ it’s impact. This isn’t news to you if you’ve been parenting a child with a history of trauma. Overtime, you have started to feel as traumatized as your child. You might think you’re imagining this or developing phantom symptoms. But you’re not- trauma is contagious.
Remember from What’s Regulation Got to Do With It that our autonomic nervous system contains the proverbial brakes and accelerator of our body and emotions. Our sympathetic nervous system is the accelerator- amping us up by activating stress hormones and chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline, increasing respiration, increasing heart rate – while the our parasympathetic nervous system is the breaks – slowing us down by releasing calming hormones and chemicals like GABA and serotonin, decreasing respiration, and decreasing heart rate. All day long our sympathetic nervous system gets activated and then our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to bring us back into balance.
When our nervous system is wide open, we are able to tolerate the fluctuations in our autonomic nervous system without difficulty. We can manage stress, deal with frustration and difficulty, and be available for relationship with our kids, spouses, and friends.
Enter one traumatized kiddo (or two, three, four, five etc…)
People who have experienced trauma have a closed and reactive nervous system. They have a harder time managing stress and frustration. Their overactive amygdala believes there is danger when there isn’t. It’s your child’s closed nervous system that can explain all their challenging behaviors.
The thing about nervous systems- is that we match each other.
Think of the last time you were stressed. And your child was stressed and acting out with whatever their acting out behavior of choice is. Your stressed body responds to their stress by doing what? Usually not becoming more calm. We keep upping the ante. Your child escalates, you escalate, your child escalates further, you escalate even MORE. (Don’t worry- this happens to all of me. Me too!).
Our nervous systems match each other. We match each other in the short term- like yesterday morning when you were late, and lunches weren’t packed, and homework wasn’t put away and all of the sudden everyone is yelling. And we also match each other in the long term. So the two years that you’ve been living with a traumatized, close nervous system who vaguely resembles your child? You’ve caught the trauma and now you are closed and reactive TOO.
When families are in crisis, when the child’s trauma is too out of control, when the behaviors have escalated….the first thing to do is to decrease the level of trauma in the parent’s system. This seems counterintuitive. This seems impossible. How on earth can we decrease the trauma in the parent when the child is spinning out of control?
It’s definitely really really really hard. And really really really unfair. To become calm and centered while a tornado is spinning around you? Hard. But not impossible. Not only is it not impossible but it’s imperative. Imagine you caught a life-threatening illness from your child. Can you help your child heal while you are critically ill? No. Does it seem counterintuitive to focus on your own health while your child is ill? Yes. But a sick momma can’t heal a sick baby (or teen).
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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling. She is the founder of the Central Texas Attachment & Trauma Center.