From May 12-18 it’s National Women’s Health Week, an annual effort put on by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office to encourage women to be as healthy as possible. To help observe the week, we’re speaking with experts about everything from mental health, diet, pregnancy, fertility issues and more.
The first time I thought that I may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, I was on the phone weeping to my mother about my period.
Just a few months prior, I’d experienced a miscarriage. It was my first pregnancy, one that I was overjoyed about. I was elated to the point where I was walking around the baby section in Target, beaming at my thoughts for the near future.
When things didn’t work out as I’d hoped, I was heartbroken, but life had to go on. I opted to miscarry naturally, a process I read online could last a few weeks. Unfortunately for me, the process lasted three months. I bled every day, had contractions that I feared, and sobbed on the toilet while looking down at my reality. For three months, I was held captive to my pain, not fully able to let go of the sadness because my body wouldn’t hurry up and let go of the fetus. When it finally did, I tried my best to be strong, but I realized that so many things ended up being a trigger, a reminder of the grief I’d experienced. I found myself speed walking past that same baby aisle in Target to keep myself from acknowledging the shame I was feeling. When I finally stopped bleeding, and then my menstrual cycle began a few weeks later, I started bawling. I was mentally exhausted and tired of seeing red. I couldn’t do it, even for just a few more days. Sitting on the toilet for too long reminded me of late nights I spent bent over, trying to find any sort of relief. Seeing babies reminded me of what I felt I was missing out on. Before I knew it, I was breaking down in tears on the phone with my mother, telling her that I felt like I had PTSD. At the same time though, I assumed I was being overdramatic. “People who have PTSD have been to wars, seen murders and survived attacks,” I would think to myself. I had experienced something that was sad, but common. I couldn’t be suffering from symptoms of something so serious, right?
According to New York metro area-based mental health professional Cindy Bowers, MA, LMHC, I very well could.
“Symptoms of PTSD can be prompted by any experience, direct or indirect, that is perceived to be traumatic,” she said. “Some examples of experiences that can contribute to symptoms of PTSD consist of witnessing or experiencing accidents and assaults, witnessing death or experiencing near-death events, military combat, significant loss of family members, home, employment and natural disasters.”
Those symptoms, according to Bowers, run the gamut. They can include thinking of your trauma to the point where you struggle to sleep, dealing with a strong sense of fear, avoiding things that can remind you of what you’ve been through, and having bodily reactions to memories of your disturbing experience. Such symptoms, whether one or a few, usually occur for at least a month.
“Following exposure to a traumatic event, one may experience symptoms such as intrusive, involuntary or distressing memories of the event, flashbacks, dreams and night terrors, sleep disturbance, memory loss, persistent negative thoughts and emotions associated with anger, shame and horror,” she said. “They may feel detached from their surroundings, exhibit self-destructive behaviors, avoidance of anything that is reminiscent of the event, and having other psychological or physiological reactions to the event.”
After finding myself an emotional wreck once again, I called my mom. She implored me to seek out a counselor to share my feelings with. While she could hear me out during my breakdowns, she was worried that she wasn’t saying the right things that could truly provide me with the support I needed. I was hesitant about the idea at first, but I couldn’t deny that I just needed someone to truly talk to. Bowers says that those who struggle with dark memories of trauma need to seek professional help. There are many options, including social workers, mental health clinicians, psychologists, psychiatrists and nurse practitioners who are experienced in treating PTSD.
“It is imperative for our community to be educated regarding the many forms in which post-traumatic stress disorder can impact them regardless of race, age, class, or socioeconomic status. Such knowledge equips us to access the readily available resources, such as community mental health clinics, private therapy and non-profit associations that provide linkage to PTSD resources, to get assistance,” she said. “It can also help people who feel they are impacted by symptoms of PTSD to have normalized conversations about their experience and reduce mental health stigma, particularly within the African-American community.”
However one chooses to go about dealing with the disorder, it’s important to know you’re not alone. Per the National Alliance for Mental Health, PTSD is something impacting 8 million Americans. Sadly, in addition, Black people have a higher chance of being impacted by violent crimes, which can trigger symptoms of PTSD.
Aside from seeking professional help, and contacting crisis hotlines when you need immediate help (such as The National Alliance of Mental Illness Helpline and National Alliance on Mental Illness), there are things you can do on your own to obtain some peace. With social media especially providing a lot of triggers for people, it’s important to also know how to cope through self-care by tuning and logging out.
“People can take a self-care approach to PTSD, particularly in the social media age, by limiting their exposure to trauma on social media, TV, or the radio,” she said. “There may be ways to set parameters to this content. Some people also take social media and other related breaks or cleanses periodically.”
“It’s also recommended to engage in a grounding activity,” Bowers added. “That can include a deep breathing exercise, a counting exercise in which one may count backwards from a particular number to de-escalate heightened feelings of anxiety, fear or anger, meditation, describing one’s surroundings to focus on the present, or having an object handy that symbolizes safety. Examples of those things can be furry objects, stress balls, a picture of someone or something significant, and having domesticated animals. Journaling can also be effective.”
I’ve done a little bit of everything to ground myself when I’m feeling emotionally overwhelmed by my memories. I log off of social media sometimes, or I use it to help me by searching for things that are humorous. I also do deep breathing in moments where people ask me triggering questions about my plans for parenthood. Nothing has helped more though than seeking out a counselor, whom I see biweekly.
All of these measures haven’t completely helped me to move on from what’s happened and not look back, but they’ve given me the strength to no longer be consumed by it all. More than a year after the beginning of that traumatic episode, I’m grateful to be where I am at now, because it’s far from where I used to be.