While my dad was visiting Michigan, we had the day to ourselves as my kids were in school. I was so excited to have quality time with my dad. Unfortunately it was pouring down rain. We decided on a leisurely brunch and then a movie. Dad chose the movie, “Wind River.” While not a movie I would normally pick, I was happy to go along. A little more than half way through…there was a horribly violent scene against a young women. I panicked, plugged my ears and closed my eyes. Unfortunately some images were burned into the back of my mind. When the movie was over, I remained seated and tears just came. My dad held me while I cried. I was able to calm down and leave the theater, but the images continued to bother me. During the next few days, I made it a priority to care for myself and allow my nervous system to process and heal.
What happened to me? I have never had any traumatic personal experience. Why did I react so strongly? I talked with my therapist about it and she suggested I might have experienced secondary traumatic stress. We know, as pelvic health therapists, we need extra time to hear the “stories” of new patients. We do our best to create a safe space for them so they can trust us and we can help them discover pathways to healing. Yet no one has taught us what we are supposed to do with the traumatic stories our patients share. How are we to cope with holding space for their pain? How do we put on a happy face as we exit the room to get the next patient?
Teaching Capstone over the last few years, Nari Clemons and I have talked with many of you who were feeling emotionally overloaded especially when treating chronic pelvic pain and trauma survivors. Some of you were experiencing job burnout, others were deciding maybe it was time for a career shift, away from the pelvis. We realized something needed to be done as our field was losing talented pelvic health therapists. We have also struggled ourselves with various aspects of our profession.
There are no studies that directly look at job burn out, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue among pelvic health physical therapists. Yet these problems are common among social workers, physicians and other people groups in health care. There are individual as well as institutional risk factors that lead to the development of each. The solution, as one self-help module puts it, is developing resilience. A large part of this skill is making self-care a priority. The basics such as adequate sleep, nutrition, and exercise are foundational. Meditation, mindfulness, therapy, and spiritual practices, as well as supportive friends/groups are also imperative.
Nari and I realized that training to develop resilience in therapists was missing. Initially we equipped ourselves to have better boundaries, ground ourselves with meditation, mindfulness and exercise, which enhanced our skills in dealing with complex, chronic patients. We compiled what we have learned and want to share it with you. We would like to invite you to attend Holistic Interventions and Meditation: Boundaries, Self-Care, and Dialogue. We have designed this 3 day course to be partially educational and absolutely experiential. We are going to dig deeper into ways to calm our patient’s and our own nervous systems, explore and practice the latest recommendations on treatment of persistent pain, we will mediate and learn about mediation, play with essential oils, learn some new hands on techniques, and support and encourage one another as we build communication skills. We want you to leave feeling refreshed and equipped to continue to treat patients without losing yourself in the process. We want to invest in you so you can continue the investment you have made in your career and avoid job burnout, compassion fatigue and secondary trauma. We invite you to develop the resilience you need for a rewarding career in pelvic health physical therapy by joining us in Tampa this January.
Cieslak, R., Shoji, K., Douglas, A., Melville, E., Luszczynska, A., & Benight, C. C. (2014). A meta-analysis of the relationship between job burnout and secondary traumatic stress among workers with indirect exposure to trauma. Psychological services, 11(1), 75.
Meadors, P., Lamson, A., Swanson, M., White, M., & Sira, N. (2010). Secondary traumatization in pediatric healthcare providers: Compassion fatigue, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 60(2), 103-128.
Sodeke-Gregson, E. A., Holttum, S., & Billings, J. (2013). Compassion satisfaction, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress in UK therapists who work with adult trauma clients. European journal of psychotraumatology, 4(1), 21869.
Stearns, S., & Benight, C. C. (2016). Organizational Factors in Burnout and Secondary Traumatic Stress. In Secondary Trauma and Burnout in Military Behavioral Health Providers (pp. 85-113). Palgrave Macmillan US.
Today we pick up on Jennafer Vande Vegte's interview with her patient, "Ben", about his experience overcoming chronic pelvic pain syndrome. Ben's quality of life improved so much that he has returned to school in order to become a PTA, with a focus on pelvic rehabilitation!
Describe your physical therapy experience. Talk about your recovery process. Include the physical, mental and emotional components.
For my initial visit, my therapist questioned and assessed my pain, then explained pelvic floor dysfunction. She made sure I understood that the evaluation and treatment process involved internal rectal work. After developing the condition and months of seeing doctors who didn’t listen, finally I found a physical therapist who was actually listening to me and determined to get to the bottom of what was going on. I could tell she already knew much about the mechanics (if not the exact cause) because she had treated other patients with the same issues. I immediately sensed a difference from any other health care professional in attitude, compassion, and knowledge. Of course, how do you know for sure? Well, you don’t. But after repeated visits and excellent results, you experience the difference. An important realization while going to Physical Therapy is learning to see the mind-body connection. In the back of my mind I sensed that my pain was being perpetuated by emotional trauma. This is not an intuitive way of thinking when you are in constant high-level, 5-alarm pain. I was obsessed with finding the cause of my pain, but chronic pain is extremely elusive and complicated.
Over the course of many months of PT though we couldn’t pinpoint what started the pain, we knew my nervous system was keeping it going. Sensory signals had somehow been rerouted through pain centers in the delicate and complicated highway interstate of the nervous system. It was as if the Fed Ex truck that was supposed to carry a package from Miami to Denver got rerouted to New York, stuck in traffic in Manhattan, flipped off by cab drivers, beaten up by gang members, contents of the truck shaken up by the driver trying to flee the city, and then finally finding the way out of New York to the true destination of Denver – with damaged goods, and shaking with anxiety. As to who the idiot dispatcher was who re-routed the truck to New York, well, he’s really good at keeping himself secret and innocent-looking. Jerk!
Physical therapy, over time, began to work for me. It released trigger points which are the first step in the long process of recovery. As we know, chronic tension must be addressed in tissues and nerves, and the mind must relearn how to remain in neutral. I found that as I gained periods of relief I could see that there truly was a mind-body connection beyond what I could imagine. My physical therapist and I both knew that nerves are the slowest recovering tissue in the body, and when you combine that with an anxious mind, you have a complicated puzzle to solve. There is definitely a closed circuit that develops with chronic pelvic pain. Pain causes anxiety, anxiety causes pain and circularly they feed one another.
During my physical therapy I joined a male pelvic pain message board online. I began understanding that most men who develop pelvic pain also have experienced traumatic emotional stress. And a large part of chronic pelvic pain is rooted in a mind-body dysfunction. I had to learn how to stop thinking catastrophically, especially during flare ups. I had to trust that my body would heal and think positively. I had to learn how to relax, take care of myself, eat well, stretch and exercise daily.
When I started physical therapy, I hoped to escape the pain. My first 5 month phase of physical therapy helped to loosen the chronically tightened pelvic sphincter muscles. However, I still had allodynia. In my second phase of physical therapy I began experiencing reduction of pain for a longer duration of time. After about a year of therapy, I finally got to a point where I could see there was significant improvement, even though some intermittent pain and anxious symptoms stubbornly persisted. In late spring of 2017, I finally felt like I had conquered the pain by 98%. Occasionally flares would still come, but they were brief and nothing like before physical therapy.
How has your experience with chronic pelvic pain changed you?
CPPS has profoundly changed me. I don’t take the little things for granted or sweat them anymore. I am grateful for not feeling that horrible, hellish sensation any longer. I appreciate having my mind pain and panic free. I speak my mind while respecting my own desires instead of belittling them. I am currently in school to become a Physical Therapy Assistant as through this process I learned that I’m actually much smarter than my middle school guidance counselor thought. I understand the mind is incredibly powerful, and fear rarely has the same power over me.
How do you handle flare ups?
I now handle brief flare ups with deep breaths, meditation, and/or just taking a step back and trying to zero in on what is really bothering me. At least now I can clearly think without debilitating pain and am able to function.
What would you like to say to other people who are struggling with chronic pelvic pain?
Oh, man. For the initial duration, I would say find a safe place where you can feel as comfortable as possible until the pain lessens. When it is bad, you sort of have to give in to it. However, part of this recovery is the physical mechanics of muscle and fascia. Physical Therapy is essential in the process of recovery to release this tension. I would tell them not to give up hope. You will not find many health professionals or websites that will tell you that you can beat this and recover 100%. But I will tell you, you can recover, 100%. You can. But for now, your full-time job is to work on recovery, and that includes lots of self-care, facing possible emotional pain, and physical therapy.
If you would like to learn more about addressing the mind body connection with patients please join us for Holistic Intervention and Meditation: Boundaries, Self-Care and Dialog in January. We will be exploring ways to help our patients heal to their fullest potential as well as keeping ourselves emotionally healthy in the process. Treating patients with persistent pain can be challenging for the best of us. Please come for this three-day course where you will leave feeling refreshed, renewed and reinvigorated to treat even your most complex patient.