We all need medical attention at one point or another, but underlying emotional traumas and unexpected triggers that may arise during a visit with a therapist, doctor or nurse can impede the healing process for some people. This everyday reality warrants heightened recognition and attention.
Dr Marshinee Naidoo, a specialist psychiatrist practising at Netcare Akeso Alberton and Netcare Akeso Parktown, says a holistic understanding of mental health and how trauma informs our experiences is crucial to an individual’s wellbeing.
“Often, a consulting room or hospital can be a place where we experience some of our most vulnerable moments in life. While there is a general move towards becoming more engaged and informed about personal health, many individuals still feel disempowered in the very space they have gone to for help, often without knowing why, but this can have a lot to do with what happened to you – not only now but in your past.”
“There is a misconception that trauma has to refer to a massive event, which it often does, but it can also be a complex layering of many smaller hurts that build up over time. The way we perceive trauma may mean that we minimise what we or others are feeling if we believe that what happened is ‘no big deal’, which can discourage a person from accessing the care they need,” she says.
“Everyone goes through some emotional hurt in their life, but when it is traumatic, different parts of our brains react in certain ways with physiological responses. The more primitive parts of the brain deal with survival and put us into a state of fight, flight or freeze, prompting coping mechanisms that provide a sense of safety or control.
“Other parts of the brain are linked to memory, and when trauma or shock is experienced, those parts can go into overdrive, disturbing rational thought and processing the experience in a disordered manner. This can result in fragmented memories of previous experiences – the bullying friend, the punitive parents, the smell of the perpetrator, the song that was playing – all of which can be triggered later in life at unexpected moments causing anxiety.”
The impact of trauma on the body
Dr Naidoo explains that in addition to emotional damage, psychological trauma can be at the root of certain chronic conditions, as when the brain processes a traumatic event, it can go into a protective state,
blocking out certain memories, which can result in a physical manifestation.
“Adverse childhood experiences – or ACEs as they are sometimes called – refer to negative experiences during childhood such as physical, emotional and sexual abuse, substance abuse and neglect, which can result in mental and chronic physical conditions later in life.”
According to Dr Naidoo, growing up with any of these experiences can predispose an individual to chronic body pain, chronic cough, headache, back pain, irritable bowel syndrome, allergic reactions, behavioural issues and other health concerns that may be misdiagnosed. These individuals may become frequent visitors to the emergency department or doctor’s office without ever being able to get to the bottom of their problems.
Moving away from generational trauma
“While many people are still coming to terms with the stigmas around seeking mental help in coping with trauma, we are seeing encouraging trends in younger age groups. Gen Z, in particular, is showing more cases of individuals dealing with trauma earlier on and nipping it in the bud than previous generations, which is very positive for breaking generational patterns of belief.
“Many of these younger people feel unheard in their family or cultural community, which may not accept ADHD as a legitimate health condition or view a gender identity crisis with compassion, for example. However, in group therapy settings, they are finding a community of their own with others who have had similar experiences and who they can relate to,” says Dr Naidoo
A change in approach for compassionate healing
While a shift towards greater trauma awareness is taking place in healing environments, Dr Naidoo points out that for long-term healing to take place, a holistic approach to care is required.
“First impressions really do last, and the people and atmosphere that greet a person when they walk into a healthcare facility might trigger anxiety and other emotions in them. They may also be carrying deep-seated traumas that are not visible but affect how they interact and accept help.
“Providing a safe space where people seeking care do not feel judged is a crucial aspect of a healing environment for physical or mental health concerns. Much as each person would wish to be met with kindness in their daily life, each individual will inevitably have better healthcare outcomes if they experience compassionate care that takes the possibility of previously traumatic experiences into account.
“As healthcare professionals, it is crucial that we are mindful of this and that we empower those in our care by listening more closely, being more transparent about treatment options and building firmer foundations of trust for patients to heal,” concludes Dr Naidoo.
About Netcare Akeso
Netcare Akeso operates a network of private inpatient mental health facilities and is part of the Netcare Group. Netcare Akeso provides individual, integrated and family oriented treatment in specialised inpatient treatment facilities, as well as certain outpatient services, for a range of psychiatric, psychological and substance use conditions. Please visit www.akeso.co.za or contact [email protected] for further information.
In the event of a psychological crisis, call 0861 435 787, 24 hours a day for emergency support. Psychiatrist consultations can be made through Netcare appointmed™, online at www.netcareappointmed.co.za or by calling 0861 555 565.
For media enquiries, contact MNA at the contact details listed below.
Issued by: MNA on behalf of Netcare Akeso Alberton and Netcare Akeso Parktown
For media enquiries contact: Martina Nicholson, Meggan Saville, Estene Lotriet-Vorster and Clementine Forsthofer
Telephone: (011) 469 3016
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