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Conquer Your Weight

Episode #16: When the Unthinkable Happens: Processing Trauma

Show Notes

July 6, 2022

After the Fourth of July Parade Shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, we're going to talk about the importance of processing trauma.

If you need help processing a traumatic event in your life, please seek the help of a qualified mental health professional. If you ever feel that your circumstances are becoming too overwhelming and you start to have thoughts of harming yourself or others, please call 911 or seek care in the emergency room right away. You can also call 24/7 to the national suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.


Dr. Sarah Stombaugh: This is Dr. Sarah Stombaugh, and you are listening to the Conquer Your Weight Podcast, episode number 16. Announcer: Welcome to the Conquer Your Weight podcast, where you will learn to understand your mind and body so you can achieve long-term weight loss. Here's your host, obesity medicine physician and life coach, Dr. Sarah Stombaugh. Dr. Sarah Stombaugh: Hey everyone, thank you for joining me today. Today we are going to continue on the theme of feelings and talk about processing trauma. And I wasn't actually anticipating to talk more about feelings at all, but after the Highland Park 4th of July parade shooting this week, I felt that I had some things that I needed to say and share with you all. And of course, while all mass shootings are awful, this one hit especially close to home for me. Many of you know that last year my family relocated to Charlottesville, Virginia after we had lived in Chicago for six years. And my residency training was at the North Shore Hospital system. It's comprised of four hospitals in the northern Chicago suburbs, including Evanston, Glenbrook, which is in Glenview, Skokie, and Highland Park Hospitals. And while I spent time at each of those hospitals during residency, I spent the most time at Glenbrook and at Highland Park Hospitals because especially for Highland Park during my family medicine residency training, when we did our obstetrical training, most of that happened at Highland Park. Any of our patients in our regular clinic who were due to be delivered would deliver their babies at Highland Park Hospital. And we would take these crazy like 60 hour weekend calls during third year of residency and you'd cover the OB call from Friday night until Monday morning. And it was a home call. So if there was nothing going on, you could be at home. But if there was a patient in labor, you were expected to be there at the hospital. And sometimes you might have a patient in very early labor. So they were there in the hospital, but not necessarily moving too quickly. So you didn't need to be at the hospital, but you needed to be close by. And I, and many of our residents lived in the city of Chicago. So for me, home was not close by. And so Highland Park Hospital was probably like a 20 to 25 minute drive if you did that in the middle of the night, driving 80 miles an hour up the interstate. And I learned that from plenty of nighttime OB calls, but that drive could easily turn into an hour or even sometimes more if you were dealing with any sort of Chicago traffic. So for me, there were a lot of times a patient might be in very early labor or we were trying to figure out what was going on and I needed to be nearby, but I didn't have to be in the hospital. So I might pop over to a restaurant or I spent a lot of time just walking around the hospital. There's some trails right there and just taking a quick walk to get fresh air. So compared to really any other of the hospitals or any of the other places in my residency outside of where I actually lived, I can't tell you how much time I spent just like bopping around Highland Park when I was on those weekend calls specifically. And then after my residency, I accepted an outpatient job with Northshore and I worked in a clinic in downtown Evanston for three years. So those northern suburbs of Chicago are a place with which I am very familiar and a place that feels like home to me. And so the shooting this week really, really hit me hard. And like everyone else, when I first learned of the shooting, I had a mix of negative emotions coursing through me, everything from grief to anger, to sadness and fear. And I remember so distinctly one of the very first things I saw, which was a post about a two year old boy who had been separated from his parents during the shooting. And when I initially saw the post, I feared the worst for that boy because I'm a mother. And as the mother of a two year old, I can't imagine being separated from my child in a situation like a shooting. I would pick up my child and I would run, and I would never let go of him no matter what. The only reason a two year old would be separated from his parents is if they had been killed. And two days later, we learned that's exactly what happened. And I see myself so easily in this circumstance, and it's easy to let my imagination wander and feel that grief so acutely as if I experience the situation myself. And then I pause and I let the acuity pass and I take a deep breath and I wonder how am I supposed to process this situation? And so that's what we're gonna talk about today. How do we process grief like this? And before we talk about handling grief, I want to remind you I am a life coach. And while I'm a physician, I'm not your physician. I'm certainly not a therapist and especially not a grief therapist, but I have a lot of connections to resources and people who are expert in dealing with grief. And I want to share some of that insight with you. But if this, or if any other trauma is too big for you, you need to seek out the help of a qualified professional, seek out a therapist or reach out to your physician to ask about local resources for therapy. If you ever feel like your circumstances are becoming too overwhelming and you start to have thoughts of harming yourself or others, please call 911 or seek care in the emergency room right away. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It's twenty four seven, you can call at +1 800-273-8255. In the aftermath of Monday's shooting, I was reading a wonderful reset resource put together by a therapist named David Stein in the Chicago Therapist Network discussing how to talk to your children about the shooting. And while I appreciate that, we need to be sensitive about how we talk to our children, we can use those same tools for our adult brains. So I'd like to share some of it with you today because unless you've worked with a therapist in the past or maybe you had parents who were especially tuned into emotional intelligence, many of us haven't had much practice working through different difficult life circumstances. And I'm not saying that means you haven't been through difficult life circumstances, but even when we've experienced them, you sort of stumble through the situation and don't really process it. And if you stop and think about it, which I know I have for things in the past, thinking like, huh, maybe there's a better way. I could have worked through that. In processing a situation like Monday's shooting, the most important thing we can do is to actually talk about it whether we like it or not. This is our circumstance. This is a thing that has happened. There is nothing we can do to prevent it from happening because it already did. It's in the past. And so we can choose to ignore it or we can choose to work through it. Choosing to ignore, it may look like anytime we're confronted with a thought about the event, we force it away. We might shut our minds down or try to go numb to these thoughts. Or we might try to false force ourselves into false pleasures in our lives like those buffering behaviors we've been talking about in the last couple of episodes. But it's really important to allow ourselves to think about the event and to process the event. And so whether you're talking about a child's brain or your own brain, the brain is struggling to make sense of what happened it's in. So it's important that we walk our brains through the process. So I want to share with you some excerpts from this therapist, David Stein. He posted this in the Chicago Clinical Therapist Networking group. And you can imagine using some of these tools with your children if you have them. But I also want you to imagine using these tools on yourself, allow your children to ask questions and express their feelings. You don't need to know the perfect thing to say because there is no perfect thing to say and there is no answer that will make everything okay. If your child gets upset, remember they're getting upset about the situation, not about having a conversation. And you might need to take the lead from your children or take the lead from yourself on this. If they're getting too overwhelmed, you may need to pause the conversation, but you want them to know that talking with you is safe, and it's a safe place in which they can feel like their feelings are acknowledged and accepted. You want your children to feel comfortable coming to you when they're ready to talk about this situation or really any difficult situation. Listen to your children answer their questions with simple, direct and honest responses. You want to tell the truth and clear up any misunderstandings or frightening rumors. Provide reassurance when you can. It's really easy in times like this to feel like we're not safe anywhere, but it's important to give examples to your children of how they could, a chil could and should feel safe in their community and their schools and their home. And lastly, it's not helpful to be children or for children to be exposed to graphic images or continuous media coverage in the immediate aftermath of a crisis event. And I want to pause here and really stop and point this one out For all of us, it's not helpful to be exposed to these graphic images or continuous media coverage. When we get sucked into continuous coverage of the event, we're keeping ourselves in a place where we're being exposed to the trauma without allowing ourselves to actually process the trauma, whether we're talking about ourselves or our children. The goal is to help provide a narrative to allow your brain to process the event. And again, if this feels like too much for you to handle on your own, please seek out the help of a mental health professional. Any of my good friends will tell you that I am a self-proclaimed guru of parenting books. And before I was due with my first, I think I googled something like best parenting books. And then that day I literally ordered a dozen books from Amazon, and a couple months later, I had a newborn and I had this red-faced little screaming human being in front of me. And I realized that most of those books didn't really apply to that situation because you don't have to really parent a newborn baby. You have to feed them and love them and maybe learn things like the five S's so you can swaddle and shush and swing them when they're screaming for no apparent reason. So initially I focused on a couple of books that teeny tiny newborn stage, and I shelved the rest. But as the newborn stage passed and I was feeling well rested again, I turned back into that bookworm that I am. And I devoured all of the parenting books I had ordered as a pregnant mama to be. And some of my favorite parenting books I've picked up and I've read again and again, I'll dog ear them and I'll leave them on my husband's nightstand. I'll share them with my friends, sometimes ordering copies of the book to be delivered to their home. One of my favorite parenting books is called The Whole Brain Child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. And while this book is aimed at parents of grade school aged children, it's honestly applicable to people of all ages. I most recently reread the book probably five or six months ago, and I remember thinking, wow, these are all the same things I'm learning as a life coach skills that we're talking about applying to the adult brain. The whole brain child takes and explains about how our brain and the different aspects for processing. So it explains the the upper brain, which is our developed brain and the lower brain, which is our primitive brain. And it talks about teaching those two halves of our brain to integrate so that we can process difficult events in our lives. The book starts out with a nice story about a young boy who was in a car accident with his babysitter and how his mother talked him through the event so that he was able to put it in his own words and make sense of what happened. And while the initial story was quite scary, I don't remember the exact details, but the babysitter, I believe, had to be taken away in an ambulance. And the boy was left alone with the police for a brief period of time where they located his mom. But eventually the mother helped this little boy to process it. And he had a story where a woowoo, which is what he called an ambulance, came and how the babysitter was hurt, but she was healing and she was going to be okay. And from time to time, the little boy would recap that story sometimes seemingly out of the blue. And this should be our goal for every difficult situation that we look at our downstairs brain, which is our primitive brain, and we see the fear and all of those initial reactions that we have. And then we get to use our upstairs brain or our developed brain to provide insight and logic and help create a story to make sense of the situation. Because when we go through a difficult situation, we're going to be faced with those memories. There will be times, even weeks or months or years after the event where something sparks a memory of that difficult situation. And so it's so important to have that narrative that we can use to help our brains process a situation and take control of the situation. So I know we've been talking about it in the context of the shooting earlier this week, but I wanna give you an example from something in my own life from just a couple of months ago and how I implemented this with our boys last fall. We were sound asleep in the middle of the night, and I woke up to the smoke detectors going off and all of our smoke detectors are wired together. So when one goes off, the whole house starts chirping at once. And it was pretty early, probably a little bit before five o'clock in the morning, and my husband was on an overnight shift at the hospital. So I was home alone with our two boys who are one and three at the time. And I hear those alarms and I bolted out of bed, grabbed my glasses, I ran into their rooms which their rooms are right next to each other. I put one on each hip and we ran down the stairs and out the front door, um, pausing just to grab our coat and shoes and my purse. And from outside I called 911, and five minutes later a firetruck rolled up. And we had a whole crew of firemen who got out to inspect the house. And luckily the whole thing had been a false, false alarm. The weather had just turned cooler, cooler in the last week. And so the furnace had, at least the theory was the furnace had blown off a puff of dust that set off those smoke detectors, but everything was actually okay, but false alarm or not, my kids, especially my three-year-old, was terrified. They had been ripped from their slumber literally and figuratively, and brought out into the cold night air while firemen tramped through our house. And so we started talking about it, what happened, how we felt, and what the outcome was. And my son, who is now four, he would tell that story over and over again in the days and weeks after the event. And even now it's probably been nine months since it happened. Occasionally he'll still tell the story sometimes seemingly out of the blue. And his story is the story in which a three-year-old, you know, contextualizes everything in which I helped him contextualize everything he says. The fire alarms were beeping, and it was very loud, beep, beep, beep. And so mommy got me and Max, and we went outside. We were scared there was a fire. If there's a fire in the house, you need to go outside. The fireman came and looked at the house and said there was no fire. So then we went back inside and everything was okay. And the funny thing is, watching him process it allowed me to process it as well, because even though the outcome was okay, there were a few minutes of my life where I wasn't sure that that was the case. Where was a mom home alone with my two children when the fire alarms were going off in the middle of the night, and processing it with him was so important for my own healing in the situation. And I use that as an example, but we can and should allow ourselves to process events in this way, whether we're talking about something horrific like the 4th of July parade shooting, or just the false alarm at my house last year. Our downstairs brains need help from our upstairs brains to think through and process the event. And when we don't allow ourselves to process the event, it still comes up. But in a way we have no control over. It'll come up with all of the raw, raw emotions coming from our downstairs brain, our primitive brain, without any sort of meaning, our explanation. And so allowing ourselves to use our upstairs brain or our developed brain to process the event gives us some control back so that we are in charge of the narrative. And again, working through this on your own might be suitable in certain situations, like when the outcome was ultimately okay or if you're more removed from the situation. But if you've experienced a trauma that you need help processing, please, please reach out to a mental health professional for help. Thank you for joining me today. If you're interested in learning more about me or if you'd like to be a patient in my telemedicine practice, please reach out to my website at S-A-R-A-H-S-T-O-M-B-A-U-G-H-M-D dot com. Thanks for joining me today. I look forward to seeing you next week. Bye-bye.
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