The Collective PTSD of a Nation

Since the Presidential election of 2016 - even prior to it - there has been a spike in the number of patients who are reporting experiences of anxiety, powerlessness, restlessness, fear, difficulty sleeping, and being more scattered and disoriented than they previously have known themselves to be. This is particularly jarring when their sense of self is shattered and they are exhibiting symptoms that have not materialized before in their adulthood. Still more concerning is when, given the changes in health insurance in recent years, patients can no longer afford their deductibles and therefore opt to discontinue treatment at a time when they might most need to be coming in.

Not long ago I attended a seminar in which the speaker addressed how in ways not previously seen to this extent or magnitude, people seem to be responding to a collective trauma brought on by our current political climate. Clinicians, in addition to our patients, are struggling to manage their own levels of anxiety and powerlessness. Many of the people in our country show a complete dismissal or disinterest in facts, choosing instead the ease of not having to think for themselves and diminishing their personal fears by taking comfort in entrusting those in authority who are disseminating lies and "fake news." On a national (if not global) level, this is incredibly terrifying. Many of us are reeling from the continual onslaught of political egregiousness. This constant bombardment of one horrific incident after another is a form of trauma and the very thing that can disrupt us to such an extent that we are left in the position of having to always be in a reactionary stance, having to brace ourselves for further trauma.

For people who have a history of trauma in their childhood and adolescence, the current political landscape is all the more fraught. It is like walking through a landmine that presents us with ongoing triggers which reawaken those early traumas which may be deeply entrenched. One might react internally in much the way they did when they were young, defenseless children. 

I encourage patients to limit their exposure to the news if it is interfering with their ability to function. Given that it may be crucial to have a safe relationship such as the one that can develop in a therapeutic relationship, I think it is important to work together to figure out how people can continue coming in if their insurance is the barrier that is preventing them from seeking the help they require. Having a support system and appropriate self-care is of the utmost importance for both patients and clinicians during this highly chaotic time. 

Suicide Survivors Part Two: The Parallel Process

In my last blog post, I addressed the topic of suicide survivors, i.e. people who are impacted by the loss of an individual who has taken his or her life. In light of the recent news of the suicides of celebrities who are in the public spotlight, I wish to follow up on my last post by focusing on the issue of "parallel process."

One of the common themes that most survivors will speak about is how powerless they feel in the wake of such a tragic event. Often they feel guilty that they were not able to do more to prevent the suicide. In the presence of the survivor's grief, others can feel powerless as well, not knowing how to best provide support or comfort to the survivor. They may feel compelled to help but are not sure how. I believe that in this particular circumstance, this response differs from other types of losses. We frequently can find ourselves in situations where friends, family members, and colleagues are impacted by the death of someone close to them. Many people have experienced these types of losses themselves and/or have witnessed others who are in mourning.  Yet this may not be as frequent when it comes to suicide. Especially if the person has never experienced a suicide or known a suicide survivor, they can feel ill-equipped to know how to respond.

In psychological terms, we can refer to this experience of helplessness or powerlessness as a "parallel process." It is often the case that the people left behind can experience in themselves a parallel experience to the person who took his or her life, namely that of feeling powerless. We can imagine that the person who saw no alternative to suicide must have felt incredibly helpless, powerless to do anything to improve their situation and feeling utterly hopeless that things can get better. Many of these people have tried multiple things to alleviate their symptoms, such as therapy, medication, meditation, yoga, body work, nutrition and exercise. At the end of the day, none of these things have alleviated the depression, shame, negative sense of self, and other feelings underlying their suicidal ideation and intent.

When others are caught in a parallel process, feeling powerless ourselves, our instinct is often to try to "fix it," to find solutions for the people who are grieving. This stems from the discomfort they have tolerating their own profound sense of powerlessness. I encourage people to sit with this discomfort. Sometimes the most we can do is to simply offer support, communicate that we are thinking about the person who is grief-stricken, and let them know that we care about them. Depending on the specific situation, we may spend time with the survivor, bring them food, and check in with them. It's different for each person. To ask the survivor what would help them can even feel like too much for them; it puts the burden on them to have to respond or even know what they need. Our intentions are coming from a place of a sincere wish to help. It's good to remind ourselves that sometimes just the simple things are a form of help. 

Someone once told me that hearing a friend say, "I'm thinking of you" felt a lot better than if the person asks them, "How are you doing?" or "How can I be helpful to you?" A simple "I'm thinking of you" conveys that you care without requiring anything in return.  

Suicide Survivors

The term "suicide survivor" is unfamiliar to most people. They assume it refers to people who have attempted suicide themselves; in fact, it refers to people who have lost someone to suicide. Whether it is a family member, partner, friend, patient or colleague, losing someone to suicide is incredibly challenging to those who are left behind to grieve. It is a far more complicated type of death that may take a longer time to grieve and can stir up a variety of feelings such as sadness, shock, anger, and guilt. Many survivors feel very isolated, experiencing that those around them cannot understand what they are going through. Also, there is a stigma attached to suicide that often causes people to keep this information a secret. 

Working with suicide survivors is one area I specialize in, although many patients come to me for other reasons and it often isn't until much later in their treatment that I learn they've lost someone to suicide. The impact of this loss can be tremendous. We need to take into consideration the specific relationship to the patient. Losing a friend or sibling is quite different than losing a parent. Losing someone the patient had a close, loving attachment to is different than losing someone where the bond was more fraught. We also want to pay attention to the method of suicide and the patient's unique experience around the death. For instance, the trauma of a survivor who witnessed or discovered the person who committed suicide varies from that of those who were distanced from this immediate visual and auditory trauma. The experience of someone who had a loved one who had previous attempts or threatened suicide for years varies from that of the patient who was completely caught off guard by the loss of one whose death was spontaneous or unexpected. A health care provider who loses a patient to suicide may experience a particular type of guilt, as their colleagues or the institution they work for may consciously or unconsciously fault them for the death. 

As you might imagine, this is a very complex topic that has so many variables that one may have never even considered. In working with survivors, I try hard to not make any assumptions about their experiences. I allow for the space and time for them to tell their story and express their feelings about their loss. Many of my patients have described how I am the first person they talked to at length about their loss because of their shame and their experience of feeling misunderstood by others. I sometimes will encourage survivors to seek out a support group where they can hear other survivors tell their stories so that they can feel less alone with their grief. 

One good resource for more information is The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which has information that can be useful for suicide survivors: https://afsp.org/ 

Couples Counseling From a Psychodynamic Framework

I often reflect on how the skills we need to navigate our lives through adulthood were not taught to us in school. Most of us did not get taught how to identify and express feelings. We didn't take classes in how to nurture healthy relationships and how to sustain these throughout one's lifetime. While a great deal of effort may be given to one's career, an equal amount of effort might be missing when it comes to the relationships that we consider most important.

When the issues that bring people into treatment seem to center on their primary relationship, then couples counseling may be warranted as the preferred treatment modality. Unlike individual therapy where we delve into a patient's psyche to understand how one's unconscious processes inform current behaviors, in couples counseling the couple is the patient and the focus of our work shifts to attending to how the partners communicate, manage conflict, and show empathy for each other. Often my role is to teach specific skills along these lines. I might help them learn active listening and empathy skills. Perhaps I may teach effective ways to deescalate fights and constructively handle arguments. I may encourage partners to talk to each other and not simply to me so they can practice communication, thus bringing their relational issues directly into the room so that I can observe and intervene as needed. As the therapist, I am in the unique position of watching how they interact and I can pay attention to the moment to moment shifts in their conversation to see where they might get stuck or how conflict escalates. 

As a psychodynamic therapist, I also place importance on understanding each person's individual history and how these intersect in their relationship. It is not arbitrary when two people find each other and embark on a journey to form and maintain a relationship. Each person brings to the table their individual relational dynamics that they learned as far back as childhood. Often people reenact in their current relationship patterns that they experienced in their parents' relationship or in their own relationships to their parents. These relational patterns continue to get repeated and played out in their subsequent relationships throughout life. When we can identify these relational patterns and how they are reenacted, then we can set about to shift these in healthier directions. When we come to understand how each individual is triggered by their partner and how that may be connected to experiences they had in childhood and adolescence, it helps each person develop a deeper understanding of their partner, an awareness of how their own behavior is impacting their partner, and the potential for greater emotional intimacy. 

Relational patterns tend to get passed from generation to generation until someone takes the initiative to work through these in the context of psychotherapy. One can imagine how complicated this can be when each member of a couple is bringing to the relationship specific patterns that can be traced back to their own early relationships and those of the generations that came before. So a husband's behavior may trigger his wife in ways that are similar to how one of her parents triggered her or similar to how her parents and grandparents related to each other, and the same can be true for how the husband experiences his wife's behaviors. Usually these patterns aren't easily identifiable at the start of couples counseling, but over time, with the help of a trained therapist, they can be elucidated and worked on. The hope is that by working together in this way, each partner can come to experience a more rewarding and intimate coupling into the future. 

 

The Relational Nature of Shame

In the play (and movie) Proof, the character Hal asks, "How embarrassing is it if I say last night was wonderful?," to which Catherine responds, "It's only embarrassing if I don't agree." This is a great example of illustrating how shame is relational in nature. As Catherine points out, Hal's question might have been met with a variety of reactions. If Catherine were to respond, for instance, by saying she wishes it hadn't happened, Hal might experience shame about what he said and may even regret that they spent the night together. But Catherine agrees with him, they kiss, and he is elated. Without our even realizing it, our experiences of shame are often closely tied to other people's reactions. The key component to hold onto from this illustration is that one may say or do the exact same thing yet have a completely different self-experience based on the reaction of the other.

From a very early age, children may develop positive or negative self-experiences based on how the people closest to them (parents, siblings, peers, teachers) respond to them. If a young boy is expressing excitement and vitality about what he is doing, for instance, his father might respond by mirroring the boy's enthusiasm and encouraging him to engage in the activity. This could lead to the boy developing a healthy sense of himself and his own agency in the world. If the father, on the other hand, were to respond by telling the boy to knock it off, then the boy is likely to believe that what he was doing displeases his father and is wrong. Often, the reaction of the other is much subtler. In this example, the father might simply give a lukewarm response, ignore the boy, or register discomfort on his face. These more nuanced, less apparent reactions can be incredibly impressionable on a child's sense of self. Even if it is not conscious, the boy might come to learn that expressing his vitality is something to be ashamed of, and this might continue to be confirmed by subsequent, similar experiences. Once the boy reaches adolescence and adulthood, a lifetime of such experiences may have led him to squelch his own excitement and dampen his vitality.

I find that by helping patients understand how closely linked their shame is to the reactions of others, it helps them to shift how they view their past experiences. Others' reactions could lead either to greater acceptance or greater shame about the part of self in question. If a female patient comes to learn that her shame about her appearance is tied to comments and reactions she has gotten from other people throughout her life and to images that our society has held up as an ideal, she might begin to reevaluate her own beliefs and self-perception. In this way, having the awareness of just how powerful is the relational nature of shame, one might be better positioned to change one's own deeply held views and challenge distorted beliefs about oneself. 

 

Mourning Losses

When we think about mourning losses we usually think of grieving a loved one who died or perhaps grieving the end of a relationship. Yet, much of the work of psychotherapy involves mourning losses that are less transparent - losses that can be traced back to childhood. This is the type of mourning that I wish to address in this blog post.

Most adult behavior has its origins in our early childhood experiences. We may unconsciously cling to relational patterns and beliefs that stem from the earliest years of our lives. Oftentimes, the reason we do this is to avoid incredibly painful feelings that may arise and engulf us when we allow ourselves to fully access these experiences. To recognize that one's parent was never able to love and accept them unconditionally, that this parent may never apologize for abuse or injuries they've inflicted, that the parent may never change and one may never have the mother or father they have always longed for and needed, that they will never be truly vindicated for the traumas they have endured - to come to terms with such losses is to open oneself up to tremendous grief. People may spend the majority of their lives engaging in all sorts of behaviors that are attempts to stave off such mourning.

Continued avoidance of mourning unresolved losses from our past comes at a devastating cost. People may suffer from depression, anxiety, and any number of other mental illnesses. They may experience chronic pain and health concerns, abuse substances, repeat unhealthy relationship patterns, and find themselves having ongoing difficulties at work and in their social lives. Even worse, they may inflict the same injuries that they suffered onto their partners and children. 

We can understand how not allowing oneself to mourn the death of a loved one can impede one's healing; we may allow ourselves and encourage others to take whatever time is needed to fully grieve, being gentle in the knowing that mourning can take various forms and evoke a gamut of emotions.  The same concept applies to mourning losses that are much more deeply buried. If working through these losses in therapy didn't have the potential to help an individual achieve greater self-awareness, profound healing, more satisfying relationships and one's personal life goals, then there would be absolutely no good reason to ask our patients to undergo a process which has the potential to stir up such pain. Still, I know of no other way to make long-lasting fundamental positive change. There's a corny saying in the business (alright, there are several) that you have to go through it to get through it. I think this expression is rather apt when it comes to this topic of mourning losses from one's childhood.