What Constitutes Trauma?
There was a recent column in the New York Times (August 3, 2013) titled “The Trauma of Being Alive” by Mark Epstein M.D. His mother was talking to him about her feelings of sadness and grief over her husband’s death four years earlier. She wondered—“You’d think I would be over it by now!”
Many adults wonder how long it should take to “get over” the death of a loved one or other losses. Grief does not have a timetable. We don’t really “get over” the death of someone we love. Rather, we get used to their absence over time. But that can take a long time. And we never stop missing them.
But Dr. Epstein goes further. He says—“Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life.” He believes that the common occurrences of life, such as death, old age, illness, accidents, separation, and loss results in trauma.
I am not sure that I agree. Lately, it has become fashionable to refer to any misfortune as “traumatic.” I believe that this term should be reserved for extraordinary experiences---abuse, neglect, horrible accident, horror, war and the like. The Boston Marathon bombing was traumatic for everyone who was in the vicinity—victims and bystanders. But, it will be especially traumatic for those that were directly impacted.
Recently, I hear many adults indicate that they have “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” or PTSD from the more common events of everyday life. They find themselves feeling anxious or worried that they may experience other “bad” things. Other loved ones may die. Future relationships may come to an end. Companies will go out of business. They will get laid off from another job. They may develop other health problems.
It’s true that we do have strong emotional responses to the changes of life. The passing of loved ones hurts. Job loss is painful. Sudden illness is jarring and jagged. Beloved pets come to the end of their lives. It is the belief that we should somehow be immune to these natural changes that results in worry that we will have other misfortune.
We will have other adversity. We will grow old (if we are lucky) and have everything from aches and pains to major illness. We will lose loved ones. As my father used to say—“We aren’t going to get out of this deal (life) alive!” He’s right. None of us are immune to the inevitability of life.
I know that it does seem like some people have “vacation” lives where nothing goes upside down for them. Others seem to have lives that are marked with numerous unhappy changes. It is hard to understand. Of course, we all want happiness and the causes of happiness.
Dr. Epstein’s mom, grieving the death of her husband, wonders when she will return to her “normal” self. What is normal? The truth is that we are always changing. Nothing stays the same. We can never “go back” to anything. The key to wellbeing is to accept this constant—change.
Of course, we all wish that we had some kind of standard or steady state of welfare that we could return to. We want our company to be the way it “used to be”; we want to have the energy we had when we were young; we want to have the smooth, unwrinkled skin of yesteryear; we want to experience the passion we felt when our relationship was new; we want to function the way we did in previous decades.
Are these inevitable changes traumatic? I hope not. They are the natural way of life.
A key to happiness—live today, appreciate what you have, and accept the changes that come with being alive.
What do you think?