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Me, Myself and Trauma: But What Does it Mean For My Health? by Soraya Matthews


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Soraya Matthews, MSc, NUI Galway, Psychology Matters Day.
Exposure to traumatic experiences or material can often have a negative impact on a person's health. It can be common for us to only consider people who have experienced trauma first hand as experiencing negative health effects, both physically and mentally. However, this experience can also occur when a person experiences traumatic material secondarily.
Secondary traumatic stress can develop when a person is exposed to trauma through hearing about the first-hand trauma experiences of others. This has become common in jobs where employees are exposed to clients/patients who have suffered from trauma (e.g. domestic violence specialists, mental health professionals, or nurses).
Its symptoms can mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if left unchecked. Furthermore, this can often be reflected in their health status (e.g. negatively impacted).
Research has suggested that individuals who have been exposed to trauma were 2.7 times more likely to have a longstanding negative health problem, such as fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and chronic fatigue syndrome. For this reason, it is important to examine the potential psychological and organisational factors that can influence, or protect against, the development of health problems and secondary traumatic stress in employees who experience high volumes of traumatic material.

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Me, Myself and Trauma: But What Does it Mean For My Health? by Soraya Matthews

  1. 1. Me, Myself & Trauma: But What Does It Mean For My Health? Soraya Matthews, MSc Health Psychology NUIG
  2. 2. 2 This talk is focused on how the exposure to traumatic material, second hand, can influence health experiences
  3. 3. What is health? 3 • Presence or absence of illness? • Ability to carry out duties? ‘ Health is a complete state of physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ (World Health Organisation,1947) • Psychological wellbeing?
  4. 4. Secondary Traumatic Stress? “I Don’t Have PTSD” 4 Definition: “the natural consequent behaviours and emotions resulting from knowing about a traumatizing event experienced by another - the stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person” (Figley, 1995, p. 7)
  5. 5. STS Symptoms & Trauma Response 5 Hypervigilance Physical Ailments Social Withdrawal Chronic Exhaustion Hopelessness Disconnection Illness Anger & Cynicism Diminished Self-Care Stamm & Figley, 2009
  6. 6. 6 Your Body on Stress  Immune System, Nervous System & Endocrine System • Eustress: beneficial stress • Acute Stress: Day to day life stresses • Boost immune function Short Term Stress When system activated, adrenaline is released Once threat is over, the body returns to natural state Long Term Stress When system activated, cortisol is released Prolonged stress exposure, harder for body to stop being alert • Chronic Stress: ongoing, ‘heavy load’ • Suppresses immune function
  7. 7. Experience of Threat – Factors Involved 7 Stress Experience Experiential Background Beliefs Internal Resources/ Coping Personality Emotional Content
  8. 8. 8 Chronic Stress over time & Potential Health Impacts Physical • Dizziness • Back Pain • Stomach Aches • Fatigue • Nausea • Chest Pains • High Blood Pressure • Headaches • Weight Loss/Gain Emotional • Anxious • Anger • Confusion • Mood Changes • Irritabilty • Sadness • Helplessness • Guilt • Fear • Hopelessness Behavioural • Alcohol Use • Smoking • Drug Use • Grinding Teeth • Social Withdrawal • Poor Diet • Avoidance • Disturbed Sleep
  9. 9. Research 9 Irish female trauma therapists and taking on physical stress of client: common health effects included: dizziness, joint achiness, nausea, headaches, stomach disturbances, and more (Booth, Trimble, & Egan, 2010). Buckley and Kaloupek’s (2001) group of studies suggest that trauma-exposed people without PTSD can still have elevated cardiovascular arousal. A key finding of PNI research is that both physical and psychological stress can trigger the inflammatory response (Robles, Glaser, & Kiecolt-Glaser, 2005). Afari et al.’s (2014) review of 71 studies, found that individuals who reported exposure to trauma were 2.7 times more likely to have a functional somatic syndrome, such as fibromyalgia, chronic pain, chronic fatigue syndrome.
  10. 10. 10 Normalizing STS  STS is a normal experience to abnormal external events  We are all human  STS symptoms fit within the framework of “Compassion Fatigue”  STS is not caused by an individual deficit  There are underlying risk factors that may leave individuals vulnerable to development  STS & health - when the “stress load” becomes too much for coping capacity
  11. 11. Empathy and Social Support 11 Empathy: • Can be a risk factor, but can also be a protective factor (Figley, 1995). • Empathy is viewed as central to mental health care and the patient- clinician relationship. • This skill has been defined as the ability to match another’s emotional response. Social Support: • This is important as it has been shown in past research to be a influence the relationship between stress and illness. • Social support can include formal support such as therapy or professional supervision or informal support such as peer supervision, family, the community and/or friends (Pierce, Sarason & Sarason, 1996)
  12. 12. The Importance of Self-Care 12  Self-care has an important role to play in the building and promotion of resilient traits for individuals (Moffette, Matthew & Fawcett, 2015).  If experiencing long-term chronic stress/STS, individuals not using self-care can be at risk for engaging in negative coping strategies, which may impact their ability to work to the standards that are required of them by their profession (Barnett, et al., 2007).  Examples of self-care strategies: eating healthily, get enough sleep, exercise, relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga, take time for one’s self, leave work at the door, and social support (i.e. offloading stress, connecting with others, talking to a professional if needed).
  13. 13. 13 My Own Research  Examining the potential work place and psychological factors that may influence or protect against the development of secondary traumatic stress and health problems in Domestic Violence Support Specialists.  Examining whether the psychological profile of DV support specialists who have experienced trauma similar to their clients in the past different to those who have not experienced this.  Individual Services, COSC & SAFE Ireland
  14. 14. References 14 • Afari, N., Ahumada, S.M., Wright, L.J., Mostoufi, S., Golnari, G., Reis,V., & Cuneo, J.G. (2014). Psychological Trauma and Functional Somatic Syndromes: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Psychosom Med., 76(1), 2–11. • Barnett, J.E., Baker, E.K., Elman, N.S., & Schoener, G.R. (2007). In Pursuit of Wellness: The Self-Care Imperative. Prof Psychol Res Pract., 38(6):603–612 • Booth, A., Trimble, T., & Egan, J. (2010). Body-centred countertransference in a sample of Irish clinical psychologists. The Irish Psychologist, 36, 284-289. • Buckley, T. C., & Kaloupek, D. G. (2001). A meta-analytic examination of basal cardiovascular activity in posttraumatic stress disorder. Psychosomatic Medicine, 63, 585-594. • Figley, C. R. (Ed.). (1995). Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized. New York: Brunner Mazel. • Moffett, J., Matthew, S., Fawcett, A. (2015). Building career resilience. In Pract., 37(1):37–41 • Robles, T. F., Glaser, R., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2005). Out of balance: A new look at chronic stress, depression, and immunity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 111–115. • Pierce, G. R., Sarason, B. R., & Sarason, I. G. (1996). Handbook of social support and the family. New York, NY: Plenum Press. • Stamm, B. H., & Figley, C. R. (2009). Advances in the theory of compassion satisfaction and fatigue and its measurement with the ProQOL 5. Presented at the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies Conference. Atlanta, GA.
  15. 15. 15 THANKS! Any questions? You can find me at