Mar 31 , 2020
Putting the “c” back into PTSD – How a mental health label became my saving grace during a time of crisis…

Never before in my entire life have I been more grateful and proud to be an Australian right now as we face the global pandemic and disruption of COVID19. With the recent announcement of our Prime Minister, the taboo of mental health has officially been lifted with $1.1 billion dollars currently being allocated to support our nation’s mental health challenges and finally shine a light on domestic violence so we can speak up against the dangers lurking behind closed doors as well.

For those of you who know me personally, we may have shared many stories and experiences of what it was like for me growing up and working in South Africa for the first 30 years of my life before officially immigrating to Australia. Don’t get me wrong, South Africa certainly had its perks as being one of the most beautiful countries in the world with people that are alive with energy, real diversity and a sense of “ubuntu which is a Zulu word which aptly describes South African’s philosophy of togetherness and unification, especially during challenging times. Yet the shadow side of this meant I worked, lived and played with very real dangers to my physical, spiritual and psychological well being, not just from our out of control levels of crime and violence, but also from my own family’s response to generations of fear and anxiety. 

This constant vigilance became a way of life for me living in Johannesburg and I surrounded myself with others who operated from the same consistent level of fear. It was only until I removed myself from this context and chose to live in Australia, did the full weight of the psychological impact of this way of life come to light for me. I remember the huge sense of relief when I finally sought professional help from an experienced psychologist in Sydney and was handed a label that made complete sense to me.
According to Beyond Blue: “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a particular set of reactions that can develop in people who have been through a traumatic event which threatened their life or safety, or that of others around them. This could be a car or other serious accident, physical or sexual assault, war or torture, or disasters such as bushfires or floods. As a result, the person experiences feelings of intense fear, helplessness or horror.”

Without getting into semantics, because the trauma I personally experienced was repeated, pervasive and came from both external and internal sources, my diagnosis includes another letter, so officially it is cPTSD which stands for Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And trust me, this was a lot better than some of the labels my new Australian peers offered me such as “full-on”, “intense”, “sensitive” and from one particularly ignorant leader, “crazy”.

PTSD

This is why I am so passionate about a future without labels because when I put all the medical speak and ignorance aside, all this means is that I have a highly evolved fight-or-flight mechanism which served me well during my formative years and certainly saved my life on more than one occasion. Just like professional athletes have well-developed muscles and co-ordination from years of consistent sports training, my neurodiversity includes an amygdala that works better, quicker and faster than most of the population. There is nothing wrong with my brain at all, it just processes danger and risk at a Gold Olympic standard if ever we were to compete when it comes to responding to a crisis. When triggered, my mind has a superpower that can process multiple scenarios simultaneously, converge quickly into paths of action and respond immediately to perceived and/or real dangers around or within me. And now, as the entire world is facing a global pandemic, I have been reflecting with my team (who are equally neurologically diverse as I am) on what a true gift my psychological super-power is during a time like this:

1. Hoping for the Best and Planning for the Worst
Many businesses are now becoming conscious of the many holes in their cultures, processes and systems having taken a very short term approach to risk management. Well not for a business leader with cPTSD. Whilst my heart remains optimistic and hopeful during all business and change management endeavours, my mind automatically responds to risk, playing out all the possible worst-case scenarios. Having a consciousness of this allows me to hope for the best, but make sure that we are also planning for the worst so when a crisis like this happens, we have inadvertently realised as a team that Earth2Mars is already prepared and built for this. Our vision was to create a business that can operate in the isolation of space and here we all are, in connected isolation on planet earth already. We are seeing COVID19 as a most needed fire-drill for our operations and the way we engage and deliver service to our people and our customers.

2. Shortcutting the Change Curve
The biggest issue many countries are facing now is the huge level of denial around how serious COVID19 is for our species. Luckily, PTSD has directed me into a career in both macro and micro change and moving through the denial/shock phase quicker than most. It enables me to show up for not just my own business and team, but for our clients who are experiencing their own levels of uncertainty, anxiety and loneliness right now. It might not look pretty initially, but people with cPTSD are able to move to a place of peace and acceptance a lot quicker than the average person who holds onto old beliefs and values during extreme times of change. This has been a gift and a privilege for us at Earth2Mars in both the best of times and the worst of times.

3. Leadership Decisiveness and Actions
Through sound, long term risk management and a culture of transparency, cPTSD has allowed me as a leader to make swifter decisions, communicate and take action immediately. Whether it’s focusing and prioritising my own mental health right through to making key decisions on how to navigate my business through uncertain times, my amygdala will never allow me to sit back in apathy and inaction as my fight or flight response is channelled into leadership and being of service to myself, our network and our clients right now. It has also provided me with entrepreneurial instincts that have served all businesses I have created and run over the past few decades where vigilance and decisiveness are often ignored.

4. A Tribe of Support
Surviving and thriving through trauma from a young age meant that personal development for me started from the age of 14. Having been constantly working on my mind, body and spirit to learn new ways to access my parasympathetic nervous system, I am grateful to have connected with some incredible human beings who are on similar journeys of development and enlightenment. For many, our usual networks of support have been abruptly limited through restrictions and isolation and for me, I am so grateful for my tribe of lightworkers, professionals and friends who today have shown up for me in ways that even my own family couldn’t show up for me. This supports me tremendously as we show up for others right now during Australia’s biggest time of need.

PTSD

5. Empathy for Others during Traumatic Times of Need
This by far is my favourite gift. Having experienced very real responses to trauma personally, I am finding that I am able to tap into both the individual and collective sense of loneliness, fear and anxiety. cPTSD has been one of the most humbling gifts I have ever received as to when I work with others through extreme and rapid change, instead of judging, rejecting or denying, I find myself able to relate on a very deep level and experience the emotions of others for exactly what they are… a valid response as our egos struggle with our new normal. cPTSD taught me that there is strength in being vulnerable as a leader because it creates a safe space for others to be real and share what is going on for them, sometimes even saving a life.

The official “c” in cPTSD stands for complex, but I believe we can all make up our own rules and beliefs for ourselves so from this point on,

Earth2Mars is officially taking the complexity out of this label and replacing the c with “compassion”. Because right now, this is a part of our humanity which is needed more than ever, as we recalibrate and evolve into a new age of work, play and life.

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