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Live Life Fully: Post-traumatic stress will resurface

By Linda Arnold

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- We hear a lot about post-traumatic stress. And there are some very effective techniques for dealing with it.

There also are varying opinions about what constitutes a traumatic event, and how long the effects of a traumatic experience stay with us -- mentally, physically and emotionally.

"Trauma never goes away completely," says psychiatrist and author Mark Epstein. "It changes, softens some with time, but never completely goes away." Epstein even cautioned his mother not to be too hard on herself for still being upset four years after her husband died.

"You'd think I would be over it by now," his mother said. "You mean, I don't have to feel guilty if I'm not over it?"

In his book "The Trauma of Everyday Life," Epstein recalls he never knew that his mother had been married previously until he was 10 or 11 and discovered her name in a dictionary he consulted while they were playing Scrabble.

His mother relayed the story, and it was rarely spoken of again -- until her second husband, his father, died a half-century later. It was then she acknowledged that the trauma of her first husband's death had never completely disappeared, surfacing again in the context of her second husband's death. It had been lying in wait for 60 years.

Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It can lie dormant until triggered by other life events. "I like to say that if we're not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we're suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder," Epstein says.

What a concept!

Obviously, we all face the potential for disasters every day. Unfortunately, this seems to be happening all too frequently. Our world is unstable and unpredictable and operates -- to a great degree and despite incredible scientific advancement -- outside our ability to control it, Epstein posits.

This brings to mind one of my favorite universal theories. Although we cannot control the circumstances in our lives, we can control our reactions to those circumstances. I firmly believe this, even in the wake of the argument that death -- and its cousins old age, illness, accidents, separation and loss -- hang over all of us.

"Shouldn't I be over this by now?" is a question heard often by therapists. The fact is, all of us are different. There's no calibrated yardstick for grief. Some people stuff it down and go about their lives stoically. Others are consumed by the traumatic event and unable to move forward.

If we refuse to allow ourselves to feel the full impact of a trauma, we deprive ourselves of its truth. Then again, there's a strong human tendency toward homeostasis, wanting to return to some sense of normalcy in our lives.

When disasters strike, we may have an immediate empathetic response. Depending on the relativity of the situation and one's general emotional makeup, some may be more affected than others. Victims of mass shootings take years to recover. Soldiers returning from war carry their battlefield experiences within.

Can we, as a community, keep these people in our hearts for years. Or will we move on, expecting them to move on as well? There's no definite answer here.

The five-stage model of grief defines phases we go through after experiencing a traumatic event:

1. Denial

2. Anger

3. Bargaining

4. Depression

5. Acceptance

Grief is not the same for everyone, and it does not always go away. By the same token, mourning has no timetable. The closest one can find to a consensus among today's therapists, according to Epstein, is that the healthiest way to deal with trauma is to lean into it, rather than try to keep it at bay. The rush to normalcy can be counterproductive. In the attempt to fit in, to be normal, the traumatized person (and this can apply to most of us) feels estranged.

I remember my first trip to a grocery store after a surgical procedure I had years ago. Something that had always seemed so commonplace felt so foreign. I was moving slowly and taking everything in. Not that that's a bad thing, considering the way I usually rush through everyday errands such as that. I just had a greater respect for the energy that's required. I'd never had to measure or conserve my energy before, and that recovery process made me take stock of that.

While we're all accustomed to thinking of trauma as the result of a major cataclysmic event, daily life is filled with endless little traumas, as Epstein points out in his book. Things break. People hurt our feelings. Ticks carry Lyme disease. Pets die.

The first day of school and the first day in an assisted-living facility are remarkable similar. Separation and loss touch everyone.

The willingness to face traumas -- be they large, small, old or new -- is the key to healing from them. They may never disappear in the way we think they should, but maybe they don't need to. Trauma is just a part of our lives that needs to be managed.

And we're human as a result of it, not in spite of it.

Linda Arnold, M.A., MBA, is a certified wellness instructor, counselor and chairwoman/CEO of The Arnold Agency, a marketing communications firm with offices in West Virginia, Montana and Washington, D.C. Reader comments are welcome and may be directed to Linda Arnold, The Arnold Agency, 117 Summers St., Charleston, WV 25301 or emailed to livelifefully@arnoldagency.com.


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