Do you find yourself getting anxious about your life? The reality is that the many stresses of modern life can trigger wounds of childhood which magnifies the fears of adult life. And, even if you emerged unscathed from your upbringing, unremitting stress - and multiple micro traumas - can invade your being, whether you like it or not.
Much can be done to be happy in the face of stress. Let's start with what's bothering us.
Crime: We are anxious because of crimes that we don’t even understand. Once, crime was a guy trying to steal your bicycle or wallet; now its internet crime, Wall Street crime, corporate crime, identity theft, child abductions and random shootings. It’s tough to feel safe. And, when does it stop?
Lifestyle Diseases: Adult onset diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, substance abuse and teen auto deaths seem to affect many people that we know. How many cancers now-a-days are triggered by toxins in our environment? We know that Lung Cancer is provoked by cigarettes; but how about Breast Cancer? We suspect a carcinogen. Maybe, ten years from now we will find that what’s safe right now, will turn out to be the culprit?
Divorce: The Intelligent Divorce Project was started in response to the stress that I saw as an expert witness in custody cases. Couples, who used to love each other, now turn embittered. The numbers are huge, including the dependents of these fractured lives.
Yes, many divorces work out for the better, but don’t underestimate the cost in money, good will and stress in making it happen – even if the outcome is positive.
Marriage and Relationships: We need each other – so, intimacy with another is well understood. But, as we’ve written about extensively, intimacy brings its own stresses. Love can easily morph into hurt and disappointment. Some of these unions end in divorce, but more find a way to cope in an uneasy truce. It’s stressful to come home and not feel truly valued. Marriage enhancement is a growing industry – and there’s good reason. Add problematic children to the mix and you have chronic stress.
If you have real love, it is quite doable. If you don’t, watch out for your blood pressure!
Debt: The United States Government is not the only entity in debt. Many of us have been living beyond our means for years. And it is not just about excessive vacations. Our large middle class counted on equity in their homes that no longer exists, on jobs that are precarious – and about retirement monies that may not be there.
It’s tough to wake up every day not knowing how to stem the outflow of expenses. And, until the economy turns around, few of us can feel really positive.
Leadership: Most of expect leadership to help guide and protect us. It’s a natural human belief. We look up to Priests, Imams, Rabbis and Spiritual “Masters” to help us find spiritual support. We have been told in Civics Class that our politicians are there to watch out for our collective interests. Even, corporate giants tell us of their commitment to ethics and community. We watch as institution after institution fails us like the Emperor without Cloths. Sex scandals in the ministry, self serving politicians and corrupt Wall Street crime makes us feel unsafe – unprotected.
While there are great people at every level of leadership, the rotten apples seem to be everywhere these days.
Understanding Trauma: Historically, trauma was first understood as a physical act. You were in war, or an accident, and you were wounded. But, injuries can be psychological as well. In the World War I soldiers were treated for Battle Shock and even later, after Viet Nam, for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This severe form of psychological injury traumatizes brain functioning – and can end up with such symptoms as flash backs, debilitating anxiety, hyper-arousal and relentless nightmares. A sudden and terrible trauma like a rape or a car accident encodes a similar neuro-physiological response.
Trauma is being understood more globally these days. The PTSD patient carries the classic form of the disorder. But, trauma can happen in other settings as well. Complex Trauma is a term that applies to people – often children or adults in abusive relationships – who are belittled, threatened, or made to feel unsafe, with seemingly no escape.
Complex Trauma: It can be a father who hit or intimidated you as a young child (Signs to Look For During Divorce: Are My Kids OK?), a mother who reactively criticized you or the school yard bully whose taunts continue to haunt your dreams. While traumatic experiences can be once-off events, they can also be on-going. What’s terrifying is that there’s no place to hide.
One reason that we treat traumatic experiences seriously is because a traumatic experience is like psychological scar tissue – it leaves an indelible mark on people. And, it often changes how a person reacts to others in the future.
The change induced by trauma happens on many levels – it affects your basic psychology and cognition – you see the world and yourself differently. And, you are easily triggered to experience your fears repeatedly. Trauma also affects your physiology; and has the potential to alter brain functioning.
After traumatic experiences, the brain encodes a fight flight response that can easily and indiscriminately be triggered, leaving you stressed and in a constant state of hyper arousal.
Every Day Stress and Micro Traumas: If you experienced complex trauma in your childhood, the many stressors of adult life can trigger you. You may become hyper aroused by stories like Newtown, or worries about your financial situation. Divorce makes people feel endangered, and you can find yourself overly anxious, without realizing that your ex, or worries about your kids, just triggered a trauma response.
Love also brings on vulnerability. No one can hurt you like your spouse. No one can leave you more hurt, disappointed, anxious or angry. If you experienced complex trauma as a child, you are likely to be triggered by your spouse – and fight flight is not good for a marriage; both responses will just push him or her away.
It’s possible that everything was fine in your childhood; yet you are still stressed out. You ruminate on how disappointed you are by clergy or politics. You worry endlessly about money. Your husband makes you feel needy every time he’s out at a business meeting. You are simply overwhelmed by everything.
What’s going on?
Two approaches seem reasonable to me. First, get yourself assessed for an Anxiety Disorder. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by “free floating anxiety” which seems to attach itself to numerous aspects of your life. The treatment is psychotherapy, and sometimes, medications.
The second approach is a bit more radical. I wonder if all the stress of contemporary life is a form of complex trauma. I call these injuries micro traumas because they cut you in small incessant ways, caused by chronic worries and fears. Everywhere you turn, someone has let you down, or you’re simply worried that everything could easily come undone. Plus, you are trapped and can’t escape.
Overcoming life's every day micro traumas:
1. The past can influence how you respond to stress. If you experienced complex trauma as a child, get some therapy. You may be able to put your worries in context.
2. Get assessed for GAD. It is a highly treatable form of anxiety that can make you suffer.
3. Try a stress relief program. Yoga, meditation, prayer, regular exercise, naps, warm baths, good friends, the joy of nature and good sleep can all be of some use.
4. There are many treatments for reducing the trauma response. Consider EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, Supportive Psychotherapy, DBT and more. In recent years, trauma treatments have come to the forefront of psychotherapeutic treatment.
5. Avoid Avoidance: Traumatized people often shut down, like a deer in headlights. Deal with the things that make you anxious, like a failing marriage or objectively evaluating how to handle your finances. Effectively handling your fears will diminish them.
6. Change what you can; and accept what you have little influence over. Worrying about things that you can’t do much about will only drive you crazy.
7. Accept, forgive or fight? Too many clergy and therapists push forgiveness before people are ready; and healthy anger can mobilize you. Just be aware that anger can poison you as well. Unfortunately, traumatized people sometimes feel justified in hurting others because of their own wounding. Find support, and use your anger constructively.
8. If it’s possible, forgive those who hurt you. People will let you down. It’s the way of the world. Don’t forget – but try not to hold on. You are the one who loses.
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