Wendy Seifert is a psychologist in Ottawa and an Aftermath supporter. Throughout her career Wendy has encountered trauma, and in an interview with Camp Aftermath, she discussed her experiences with PTSD and the healing properties of a sense of purpose.
Camp Aftermath: Why did you become a psychologist?
Wendy Seifert: I grew up in Montreal, where I lived until I was 24. I went to a private International College for elementary and high school and then went to CEGEP. It was there that I became more sensitized to some of the personal struggles and hardships many people face, often alone or in secret, and it was at that time that I knew that I wanted to help people. I wasn’t sure what the platform it would be, but I knew it would be in the mental health field. I decided to pursue psychology. I did my undergraduate degree in Psychology, and my Masters in Counselling Psychology.
People have told me that I’m not your average psychologist. I am not the soft, tender-voice, overly Rodgerian type of therapist. I challenge. I coach. I support. I recognize that much of people’s suffering and anguish come from a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. Growing up, my parents ingrained in me that the only thing standing in my way was myself. That empowered me and gave me so much confidence. I wanted to be the kind of person who could help others develop that same kind of confidence and believe they are the ones ultimately, to help themselves. I wanted to help people reclaim and design their lives.
After having worked in a hospital in the psychiatric department, I ended up working in non-profit mental health facilities with adolescents and children. It was in working with these young people that I really became exposed to trauma.
CA: Can we discuss your first experiences with PTSD?
WS: My first experiences working with PTSD came when I worked for a Centre for adolescents and children with severe emotional and behavioural disorders. Many of these children were being diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety and so on. However when you really started getting to know some of the kids’ stories, you would realize that many had suffered abuse or witnessed violence. Exposure to things such as alcoholism and abuse throughout one’s childhood constitute developmental traumas. Trauma is the perceived or real threat to the physical or psychological survival of oneself or loved one. Some of these children were suffering from PTSD.
It was actually in this professional setting where I had my own first traumatic experience, having been attacked by one of the adolescents. Unfortunately, family members and I would come to experience other significant traumatic events in our lives in later years.
Not everyone develops PTSD following traumatic events; each person has their own resilience and unique set of coping skills. I have learned through both my personal and professional experiences that giving, helping, and philanthropy offer much to the healing process.
Some of the impacts of PTSD are dysregulation of one’s thoughts and emotions and, disconnection from relationships, including disconnection from one’s self. Disorientation of time is another impact, where the individual feels stuck in the past at the time of the event, anxious about the future and, has difficulty being in the present moment. Common behavioural signs of impact include hyper-arousal, avoidance and intrusion (i.e., nightmares)
CA: What did you learn about trauma while working with adolescents and children?
WS: I worked with adolescents for 2 years and after I was attacked, I needed to feel safe. I am a small woman, easily overpowered by any teenager 15 years or older. I left to work with young children in another organization. I worked with that population for 15 years and over time it got harder and harder bearing witness to their stories. I was burning out and I knew I had to take care of myself. I left that job, knowing I could no longer work with that population without further sharing impacts of their lives.
I learned you need to know your limits. I needed to know what belonged to them, and what belonged to me. I needed those boundaries to know how much I could give, and still have enough left to give to myself.
When I stopped working with kids and started working with adults, I felt unburdened. With adults you know that they are self-sufficient. With kids, this is not the case. I have had to call the police and Children’s Aid to protect children, but once you have made that call, the situation is out of your hands and a child may or may not be returned home. The parents’ may or may not want help and treatment for themselves. I couldn’t change that.
CA: What techniques have you observed as being beneficial for the treatment of PTSD?
WS: I believe for PTSD sufferers it is first key to learn how to regulate the body and mind – controlling the restless anxiety or the intrusive thoughts for example. Learning how to bring yourself under control and into a relaxed state when you are experiencing the exact opposite. You have to be able to feel that you bring yourself under control and create distance between you and the traumatic event to feel safe enough to talk about it, as talking about it, thinking about the trauma, could potentially re-impact the person. To live in the present, a person has to understand how the trauma has changed them, their values, their priorities, their goals, their relationships. It is about integrating the trauma into their life, and acknowledging that it is part of this new version of themselves, a version they have a role in designing – another stage of treatment.
A simple technique used to help anchor and settle oneself is diaphragmatic breathing and it can have a deep impact helping people deal with anxious situations. I also use Emotional Freedom Technique, also known as “tapping”. Once we have helped people learn to regulate their emotions and thoughts, and integrate the past trauma into their present selves they need to learn to reconnect. Reconnect with people, or animals, or the environment. Reconnecting helps us find the good that is out in the world, in other people and within ourselves.
Recovering from PTSD is not about finding your way back to your old spot, but finding your new spot.
CA: What are your thoughts on Camp Aftermath’s approach to engaging in volunteerism in order to heal oneself?
WS: One of the best things about volunteering is that the expectations are low, so you cannot not meet the expectations. You are in full control of how much to give, or not give. You choose how much you need to keep for yourself. Volunteering helps connect you to others. To know that you have contributed to another person is a feeling of achievement, because you also recognize that you have contributed to yourself. You begin to recognize that you are doing meaningful work, that you still have purpose, and that you can still have a positive impact on others. It helps re-establish a sense of hope that can sometimes get lost with PTSD.
I think volunteerism feels good to most people. By using it as a tool to help those suffering from PTSD gets at some of the origins the injury often takes root from: powerlessness, helplessness. Volunteerism gives you the platform to not be helpless and to give, which works to heal the injury.