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Aromatherapy and Hyper-vigilance

A window sill with five potted plants on the sill

Merriam Webster defines anxiety as: a: painful or apprehensive uneasiness of mind usually over an impending or anticipated ill.

If there is any one thing that is a common ‘issue’ if you will for adopted children, it’s most likely some degree of anxiety.

In extreme cases, many parents report a constant state of “hyper-vigilance”. The child is always on high alert, watching, waiting, anticipating what lies ahead. If we think about their start in life it makes perfect sense.

Many (not all) adopted children today get a rather rude start to life. They learn from the earliest of times that there is no trust, no felt safety, no automatic caretaker, no self-less nurturer who would lay down their life for them.

There are some that discount the trauma that can happen during the gestational phase of life. Parents of prenatally exposed children know better.

I’m a survivor of childhood trauma. I have no clear memory of my first seven years of life, only bits and pieces. I was raised in the traditional family dynamic of the day but it was more Jerry Springer than Leave it to Beaver. I have enormous trust issues and I think that is what has allowed me to recognize these patterns in my own trauma child adopted from an international institution at 28 months.

How can we expect children who have been abandoned sometimes repeatedly by birth parents, care givers, the legal system, their case workers to trust anyone including themselves. That’s why they’re always in this hyper-vigilant state because they don’t trust that they’re in a safe place. They’re always waiting for that next shoe to drop.

I remember that after decades of therapy before my daughter was born and long after her birth, I still had nightmares something would happen to me. I put a will in place with a codicil stipulating every detail I could think of for her upbringing before I was six months pregnant. I stayed up nights writing letters to her for her first day of kindergarten, major birthdays, high school graduation, etc. There’s always that element of something or someone is going to take this all away. I used to have similar nightmares after I first got married. Children of trauma do not know what blind trust is and I honestly doubt most will without significant intervention and patience.

I remember when I first contemplated using essential oils with my adopted child, it was because we had literally tried everything else to try to calm this hyper-vigilance. I’m very careful because I never want my children to feel like they’re not ‘good enough’ or I’m ‘trying to fix them’.

My child would come to me and say “Why can’t I get my brain to stop? Why am I always angry? Why can’t I control this? It’s driving me crazy!” Medications weren’t helping and I only resorted to them because my child was so miserable. When it was time to take the medication, I would hear “Why do I have to take this it does NOTHING for me!?”

When I got my first ‘collection’ of essential oils, I said to my child “We’re going to try these to see if they help. I want you to let me know what you think of them. If they don’t help we’ll keep looking.” Less than three hours later “Mom where’s my oil? I need my oil.” Our adopted child bought into aromatherapy before the rest of the family did. Anxiety issues are the root of so many adoption “behaviors”.

It was literally my child’s positive response in combination with the safety issues I had using oils that led me to complete my clinical aromatherapy certification.

The best explanation of anxiety I ever heard was at a symposium at Seattle Children’s Hospital several years ago. I’m paraphrasing here, but the analogy was that a child in general has 8 ounces of ‘reserves’ to deal with what ever life throws at them during the day. When a child has anxiety issues they use 6 ounces of those reserves just dealing with the anxiety. That leaves them only 2 ounces to get through all life throws at them.

Now imagine you’re an adopted child who has been through the system. You’ve learned you can rely on no one, you have an anxiety issue as well, and your new family is trying to build trust and relationship. If you’re an internationally adopted child, I imagine this can be particularly terrifying. All these new overwhelming sensory experiences are coming at you, new sights, sounds, smells, textures, culture, and tastes. How is a child supposed to deal with all that? Our culture tells us “They’re kids, they’re resilient. They’ll bounce back.” They’re behavior tells us “We need help!”

When a body is in a state of hyper-vigilance for prolonged periods of time, it takes a physical toll. The level of cortisol released to maintain that level of vigilance can lead to adrenal fatigue. Adrenal fatigue can lead to other health issues. Adrenal fatigue is not commonplace and may easily be overlooked by doctors who don’t understand the broad spectrum biophysical impact of trauma on the body’s chemistry. Having detailed and informed conversations with your healthcare provider about their knowledge on the subject and their willingness to learn more if need be is crucial for your adopted child. You must advocate for their healthcare just as hard as you do their education. If you’re fortunate enough to live in an area with properly trained and licensed naturopathic physicians, they would be a good starting point.

Finding ways to calm the hyper-vigilance is also critical. Look for ways to reduce their stress level. Aromatherapy can be effective in supporting the limbic system as I mentioned in my previous post: The Amygdala and Aromatherapy

However, what I see all too frequently is the classic American phenomenon of (no insult intended) “well if a little is good, then more must be better”. This is NOT the case with aromatherapy. It is crucially important that one understands the chemistry involved when choosing essential oils for working with trauma. Just because there may be 20 oils that can be used for anxiety support does not mean you want pick 10 and use them in a blend. In fact, you may not want to use any at all. You may find better support with hydrosol’s. They’re more muted and not so overwhelming to the senses and some children prefer them (some grown ups too).

Aromatherapy can benefit the entire family. Carefully selected and conservatively used aromatherapy can help support each member of the family who may be feeling overwhelming stress. I find no more than two drops of the right essential oil or blend, or 2 tsp or less of hydrosol in the diffuser is enough to reset the tone and support the limbic system in it’s time of need. More on that in an upcoming post on aromatherapy for supporting those impacted by secondary trauma.

©2016 Cynthia Tamlyn-CCA DISCLAIMER





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