Ask the Expert, Tamar Rodney, PhD, PMHNP-BC: What Is Cumulative Trauma and How Do You Deal with It?

I entered the most stressful work situation I've ever been in, plus my marriage ended, plus I had a major health scare all in the space of 12 months. It was several years ago and I've never been the same since. I just can't seem to move on. Can PTSD occur over a period of time or is it only caused by sudden traumatic events? In this video, Dr. Rodney answers your questions about mental health treatment.

Tamar Rodney, PhD, PMHNP-BC, CNE is an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. Her research and clinical work focus primarily on improving PTSD diagnosis and treatment.

For information about treatments for PTSD please visit The Treatment Hub.

Hi. I’m Dr. Tamar Rodney, a psych mental health nurse practitioner. And our question is: “I entered the most stressful work situation I’ve ever been in; plus, my marriage ended; plus, I had a major health scare, cancer, all in the space of 12 months. It was several years ago, and I’ve never been the same since. I just can’t seem to move on. Can PTSD occur over a period of time or is it only caused by sudden traumatic events?”

And I want to say to you first that yes. What you’re describing is what I would call cumulative trauma, in that all of them have been compounded to be what are a series of traumatic events. And to be more specific, yes, PTSD can occur over time and it’s just not just a single event. Different things might be happening but in different times. But more striking, I would say is that your body never had a chance to heal. Your mind, nor your soul, just never got the time to heal, considering that you’re going through multiple different events, each of which is [pause] traumatic. And I pause to say that because I can only imagine the experience of all of those and this idea of feeling stuck and not knowing what to do. What I would also say to you is that you need to take the time to deal with each of those events in its own context and allowing yourself the time to heal, acknowledging the scars that each of those events have also left on you because it sounds from your question you didn’t have the time to seek treatment or appropriate treatment, but it’s not too late.

Asking at this time makes it the right time to seek help. And I would say also the first step is talking to your primary care provider, letting them see what are the primary things that you need to work on. So, you’ve described multiple events and multiple things that has been problematic, but there’s another concept I want you to think about, which is what is most important for you to deal with right now so you can feel like you can move on, you can start to experience that joy that was there before.

And I would say you’ve actually taken the first step to firstly recognizing that they’ve all been difficult, that you haven’t yet had the chance to deal with them but reaching out to say you’re stuck and you need help. So, reach out is the first thing I would say, but reach out now and let’s start this process of healing both your mind and your body and giving that time to heal as you go through that journey.

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Posted on BrainLine November 17, 2021. Reviewed November 17, 2021.