Archive | November, 2014

Trauma or a Lesser Cousin?

17 Nov

Dear Readers:

Today I want to talk with you about a very common phenomenon in today’s hyper-tech, on-steroids world of information and sensation overload! This phenomenon is actually a universal human experience that has been with us since the dawn of the human race.

As human over the ages, we have undoubtedly experienced instances of meteors landing on earth, of forest fires, or hurricanes, tornados and typhoons, of tidal waves, earthquakes, and tsunamis. These are traumas resulting from natural causes. However, there are also the human-caused trauma: betrayal, theft, murder, and so on. The Bible tells us about the murder of Abel by Cain and the subsequent stigma that Cain bore all his life because of that act. The story of Cain and Abel is a way of highlighting the universality of human tragedy due to conflicting needs and desires among family and community members. The destruction which results from conflicts gone savagely violent is no less a catastrophe than those natural eruptions on the planet mentioned earlier.

Human beings react differently to trauma, whether it be a devastation such as was experienced by thousands of people in Port au Prince, Haiti, or whether it be an individual trying to recover from rape, incest, or child abuse.

Our first reaction to trauma is shock. We can hardly believe our eyes, our ears. Trauma hits us between the eyeballs and reverberates on our eardrums. However, it may be most potently experienced kinesthetically — by the nerves and muscles of our body.

If we are lucky, we will have at least one other person to listen to us as we relate what we experienced. We need to be heard after a trauma, because we are having a hard time believing what happened (we are in shock), and so a listening presence enables us to believe our experience. We need to believe it so we can begin to recover from it.

Trauma is utterly horrifying. It we go back thousands of years to the time of the ancient Greeks, we may recall Oedipus’ horror when he found out that he had been sleeping with his own mother. That Greek drama, Oedipus Rex, provoked the shock experience in Oedipus and in the audience, and so drama and trauma were linked in the Greek mindset.

This century has brought with it a much more widespread experience of trauma to the world’s population thanks to readily available and instantaneous media. Whether it be the execution of an innocent American or European by ISIS; the murder of young teenagers by a wanted criminal; or the abuse and murder of an innocent nine-year-old killed by his own mother, we are bombarded daily and nightly by horrendous stories which vicariously traumatize us with vivid scenes and explicit descriptions. School shootings, mobs out of control, drive-by killings, police violence — all of these events come at us in vivid color on our nightly news.

I am making several points here:

  1. Trauma, natural and manmade, has existed time immemorial as part of the human experience.
  2. Directly experiencing trauma has an immediate and a long-lasting effect on our nervous system.
  3. As human beings living in the first half of the 21st century, we are traumatized vicariously by events we experience “from a distance” on a daily basis. Not only that, we may also be traumatized by technology and its unrelenting “progress” and by the fast pace of a society which has little time for people to relate to one another in a deep and caring way.

These are my initial thoughts — an introduction, if you will — toward making sense of the “heightened awareness” of many persons whom I see in therapy and who are “arrested” in their recovery from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In future blogs I will link the “normal,” everyday stress we encounter to the more extreme form of stress known as PTSD. This “normal” stress is the “lesser cousin” I refer to in the title to this blog. I invite comments to this discussion at!

“Feelings — Nothing but Feelings”

9 Nov

“Feelings — Nothing but Feelings”.

“Feelings — Nothing but Feelings”

9 Nov

A line of a familiar song makes it seem like there’s nothing much to dealing with our emotional life. Yet many of us don’t know at any given moment what we are feeling about a situation or even why we may be feeling the way we do.

My last post on parenting hopefully gave you some ideas about how to help your school-age child with his or her feelings. This one will deal with adolescents and young adults.

Adolescents are going through what Erik Erikson called the crisis of “Identity vs. Role Confusion.” Hopefully they have already built up a strong base of confidence in their roles at home, at school, and in sports and other activities. Now as teens they are looking for positive role models and are also comparing themselves with their peers. They are silently and perhaps unconsciously asking themselves, “Who am I? What can I be?” They test out various roles in their friendship relationships, at part-time jobs, and in internships, for example. The emotionally healthy adolescent is very active in extracurricular activities of all kinds, exuding an enormous amount of energy on play practice, chorus, community activities, sports involvement, part-time employment and so on. Parents wonder how they can have all that energy and still be talking on the phone at 10 PM when the school bus arrives at 7 AM!

Besides this crisis of “Identity vs. Role Confusion,” many American adolescents are already grappling with the crisis involved in Erikson’s sixth challenge on the way to maturity: “Intimacy vs. Isolation.” This stage has been roughly designated as the years 20 – 39, although the specific chronology of the eight life stages is really arbitrary.

In this sixth stage, the central question is, “Can I love?” Adolescents, of course, are experimenting with this question in many ways, all too often driven by their budding and blossoming sexual hormones. Most do not yet know that love is more than physical attraction and acting out sexually. No wonder American teenagers are psychologically overwhelmed! They are trying to figure out who they are and what they want to do as a primary vocation, BUT they are also trying to figure out who they are as a young man or woman (without even considering those additional questions of gender identity or sexual preference!)

In his book, It’s Hard to Tell You How I Feel, Richard L. Krebs writes, “As adults who care about children and their feelings, our first order of business then is to pay attention to our own feelings, explore them, and understand them.”

Honesty with yourself about your own feelings, helped by faithfully keeping a journal, is the basis for talking with your teen about his/her feelings. Realize that you can’t force an adolescent to share personal things, including feelings, with you. You must respect your teen’s privacy and use your observational skills to seek out a time when the two of you can have a conversation — or let the young person approach you!

Here are some suggestions for having a heart-felt one-on-one with your teenager:

  1. Help your child realize that no one else is responsible for their feelings. Thus when they tell you that “Ellen made me feel really bad,” give them enough space and time to tell the whole story. Then ask them what specifically they are feeling (not just bad) — “Hurt? Sad? Disappointed? Angry?”, etc. Show them that when they look at the situation from a different angle, they will have a different feeling about it. If you do this regularly with your teen, they will eventually accept responsibility for their own feelings and, more importantly, they will be able to let go of the “dark green” feelings and replace them with more hopeful feelings — feelings which propel them toward positive behaviors.
  2. Help your child learn to use “active imagination” to work through a feeling. Sometimes we may be feeling several things at the same time as a result of a certain experience. So it’s important to acknowledge each of the feelings, give them a place at the “table of our mind and heart” and eventually decide what course of action to take. We need to recognize that both feelings and thoughts are propellants to action. The emotional energy of our feeling world can propel us into action. However the thought process of imagining and working through the consequences of an action is invaluable.
  3. Help your child recognize that the feelings we have about a present situation are resident in our bodies. Our bodies speak louder than our words. Nonverbal communication actually comprises over 90% of what our listener takes away. Our gestures, our grimaces, our laughter and smiles, how we sit, how we stand, how we walk all speak volumes about what we are feeling. And just as we project these data outward to others, we also experience the depth of our own feelings in our bodies. Be aware of how your own feelings are resident in and affecting your body — your musculature, your blood pressure, the tightness of your shoulders — and help your child to recognize this important connection as well.
  4. Help your child to learn when and how to express emotions. Just because we are feeling strongly about something does not mean we should express it vehemently to our friends, our family, much less to our peers or coworkers. Modulating feelings — not keeping them inside and allow them to do damage — but expressing them at the right time to the right person is a sign of emotional intelligence. Keeping a journal to process our feelings is a good step to learning how to be in proper control of and to use effectively the products of our emotional life.