“What Was That?”

1 Jul

“I don’t get it! What are you trying to say?” Sometimes when we are with a person we know fairly well, we are dumb-founded by a comment they make or a reaction they exhibit. We wonder where it is coming from. This is especially true when your friend seems to overreact to an event or a comment. Her reaction seems totally out of proportion.

You may not have thought that this was stemming from the other person’s nervous system. It can well be a psychophysiological response! Thus it’s not just attitude!

In the universe Earth is sometimes pommeled by an asteroid or a comet. Or the dust from a nuclear explosion obscures the sun so that there is no growing season for quite a while. Traumatic events like these occur from time to time. Some of them are man-made, such as the recent nuclear reactor failing to cool in Japan. Others occur naturally, such as a tsunami that hit Indonesia several years ago.

In the microcosm of our individual lives events of parallel proportions sometimes occur. And people are able to recover equilibrium to a greater or lesser degree. For example, following the death of his wife, John was unable to go back to the home they had jointly shared. He chose instead to stay with one child, then another, and finally stayed with a sibling for a while. After short-term counseling he was able to go home, get connected with a grief group, and begin his former activities. If all continues to go in that direction, he will reestablish connections with friends and community and once again have a satisfying life.

However, many individuals have a much more difficult time developing resiliency after a loss or trauma. Grief and trauma tend to “piggyback” — that is, we do not handle more grief and trauma better because we are used to it! Unless we actually do the hard work of grieving or of releasing our trauma, it will remain within our psyche and continue to influence how we think, how we feel, and how we interact with others.

Trauma, as opposed to “pure grief,” sets up the nervous system to overreact to everyday events. What is so insidious about trauma is that it becomes embedded in the nervous system and the person is no longer aware of the traumatic event or events. Most often this kind of trauma may refer to events that occurred decades ago! And trauma does not have to mean a single, unspeakable event. Thus trauma could be a one-time occurrence, for example, a molestation or rape by a previously well-loved and trusted individual OR it could be a series of horrific events. An example of this might be growing up in a home with drug and/or alcohol abuse in which there are nightly bouts between parents involving screaming and possible physical violence. This particular scenario might be likened to living in an inner city or even in a ghetto in Syria.

Often people come into therapy for their marriage, but what they are really dealing with is the trauma suffered by one or both spouses earlier in life. The nervous system has held onto this trauma, unbeknownst to them. But when a spouse makes a suggestion, all hell may break loose! The reaction may be totally out of proportion to the original comment, thus “What was that?” Partners are left dumb-founded and at a loss to understand what has happened in this interchange.  To an observer, it may become clear that there was a trigger, a word, a gesture, which set off the reactionary response.

Fortunately, for trauma survivors there is an excellent prognosis. There are several methods to help release the trauma from the nervous system. I will plan to tell you about two of them in my next blog!

 

 

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