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Published on August 17, 2021

How To Cope With Traumatic Events And Stress

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How To Cope With Traumatic Events And Stress

It was about 1:45 am on a Thursday morning in June. I can vividly remember waking up and frantically clenching my sheets. Everything was shaking all around me. I felt disoriented. I had no idea what was going on. At first, I thought that perhaps I was waking up from some kind of intense earthquake-themed nightmare.

All I really knew was that I woke up feeling scared, very scared. And then all of a sudden, I started hearing the screams, and then in the distance, the sirens, lots of sirens. By that point, it was clear that something very bad had happened.

I looked outside of my bedroom window to see what was going on, but everything was unusually dark with just a handful of lights flickering like stars through what appeared to be early morning fog. Once I got my bearings and made sure that the rest of my family was safe, I got dressed and went outside to investigate what had actually happened.

I remember that the air was still full of tiny bits and pieces of debris floating around and everything was covered with a fine layer of gray dust. As soon as I stepped outside, I saw my neighbor standing on the corner in his bathrobe. He was pale and motionless, with both his mouth and his eyes wide open, as if he had just seen a ghost. I asked him what was going on, and without saying a word, he just pointed over to the building across the street. It was the Champlain Towers in Surfside, Florida, and at least half of the condominium appeared to have collapsed on top of itself, all twelve floors, obviously still full of people at that time of day. I soon found myself standing there next to him in shock and with my mouth wide open, while my heart sank deep within my soul.

I knew a lot of lives would be lost. I knew this was going to be bad, very bad.

Although I did not know any of the victims personally, I will never forget seeing so many of them spending time out on their balconies. The ocean view must have been spectacular, especially at night, in the moonlight. Tragically, the only view that was left early that fateful morning was that of a massive pile of rubble by the sea.

In the days that followed, search and rescue teams from all over the world swarmed the site of the tragedy with cranes, probes, drones, and dogs looking for any signs of life. Even the President of the United States came by to offer his support to both the families of the victims, as well as to the first responders who were tirelessly working hard to save lives.

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But in the end, even after an exhaustive and valiant effort, no additional survivors were to be found. Although my pain cannot match that of the families of the victims, it remains embedded deep within my conscience, as I continue to feel anxiety and profound sadness associated with the tragedy.

Through my own personal experience, I have now learned that you do not necessarily have to be the victim of a tragedy to be traumatized by a traumatic event. Sometimes, all you have to do is bear witness to it.

What Is Trauma?

So exactly what is trauma? How does it affect you? And how can you deal with it effectively?

Trauma is broadly recognized as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Just like death and taxes, at one point or another, you will almost certainly experience a traumatic event in your lifetime.

Along with all of the amazing things that life has to offer, you could say that trauma is just another part of the human experience. As a matter of fact, it is estimated that 70 percent of all adults have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetimes.[1]

Trauma itself can be triggered by any variety of traumatic events, including emotional abuse, acts of violence, natural disasters, and tragic accidents. With that being said, there are essentially two types of trauma:

  • Type 1 trauma refers to a single incident or event, for example, trauma associated with a car accident or a natural disaster like an earthquake.
  • Type 2 trauma refers to a traumatic event that is prolonged and repeated, for example, continued emotional abuse by a bully in school.

Similar to many physical injuries, emotional trauma does leave scars, however, they may not necessarily be visible at the surface. As a matter of fact, symptoms of trauma can actually be both emotional and physical in nature.

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The most common emotional symptoms of trauma include feeling numb, angry, anxious, guilty, sad, confused, hopeless, and shameful. While the most common physical symptoms of trauma include fatigue, poor concentration, poor appetite, overeating, insomnia, hypersomnia, and high blood pressure.

Although most people will experience a traumatic event in their lifetimes, not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will necessarily be traumatized by it. Nevertheless, perhaps the most commonly recognized traumatic disorder is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. It involves being exposed to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence that can either be experienced directly or witnessed in person. Then, as a result of the traumatic event, recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive distressing memories and flashbacks of the event are experienced.[2]

Many people suffering from PTSD experience difficulty forming close relationships and often avoid situations that remind them of the traumatic event. Some of the most common symptoms of PTSD are irritability, hypervigilance, exaggerated response, sleep disturbances, and self-destructive behaviors including acts of violence, suicide, and drug abuse.

I am not necessarily suggesting that you should somehow try to prepare yourself in advance for impending doom, but rather in case you experience a traumatic event, that you are in possession of the tools to deal with it effectively. So here are 5 ways to deal effectively with the stress from traumatic events.

1. Self-Expression

For me personally, I am finding solace in opening up, and sharing my experience about the tragedy that sadly unfolded right in front of me. As a matter of fact, at least in my opinion, just writing this article is a healthy way for me to express my feelings constructively.

Interestingly enough, I am still having a hard time talking about the tragedy without reliving some part of it in my mind. However, I am able to write about it with relatively minimal emotional discomfort.

I firmly believe that writing has actually helped me see my world from a more objective and self-nurturing perspective. And I am confident that journaling your feelings could work for you or anyone else who may have gone through a traumatic event as well.

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Nevertheless, if you do not have the time or the patience to write about a traumatic event that you may have experienced, you could always try your hand at illustrating your feelings through some form of artwork, after all, sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

2. Counseling

Although the emotional pain of a traumatic event may never fully go away, besides self-expression, I strongly recommend counseling. A well-trained and compassionately intuitive trauma therapist should be able to help you process your feelings constructively at an emotionally manageable pace.

Counseling has the potential to help you find your way safely out of the proverbial forest in your mind by having a professional guide to help keep you on the right path. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy or EMDR is recognized as perhaps the most widely accepted clinical orientation when it comes to treating trauma patients.[3]  It asserts that after a person experiences a traumatic event, disturbing thoughts, feelings, and images get stuck in the brain, whereby EMDR essentially creates mental pathways to effectively release those disturbances with minimal emotional disruption.

3. Meditation

You may have been robbed of your innocence. Your serenity may have been shattered. However, no matter the circumstance, you are still in possession of your soul, which in my humble opinion is the gatekeeper of your emotions.

Meditation can help you reach deep within yourself to establish a greater sense of inner peace, thereby providing your soul with the emotional nutrients necessary to protect itself from negative energy. As a matter of fact, meditation, along with other non-medicinal complementary interventions, has been shown to significantly reduce severe symptoms of PTSD experienced by soldiers following combat.[4]

So go ahead and put away all of the electronics (yes, you can do it), as well as all of the things that you need to take care of for all of the other people in your life, and get ready to take a much-needed mental health moment all for you, at no additional cost, other than a few minutes of your time.

Start off by finding a safe quiet spot in your home, maybe somewhere on the floor of your bedroom, perhaps near a window. Take off your shoes, sit down slowly, cross your legs, and then gently rest your arms on top of your thighs with your palms up to the sky. Keep your back straight and close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths and begin to shut down your conscious mind, while gently embracing the healing power of the serenity that now surrounds you. You are welcome to stay there as long as you like. Just make sure that you’re not late to work.

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4. Exercise

Regular exercise can help reduce the stress associated with trauma by pumping up the production of endorphins, neurotransmitters in your brain that help regulate your mood. Additionally, cardiovascular exercise improves circulation which is essential for optimal health by providing adequate blood flow and oxygen to all of the organs in the body, thereby keeping your heart healthy, and your mind sharp so that you process your feeling with greater clarity.[5]

Lastly, as you tone your body and shed unwanted pounds, exercise ultimately helps build self-esteem, one of the most potent antidotes against symptoms of trauma.

5. Connection

Avoidance is one of the most common symptoms associated with trauma. In many cases, people who have experienced traumatic events find themselves frequently avoiding interaction with others as a means by which to prevent additional trauma.

Unfortunately, however, humans are fundamentally social creatures, by avoiding one another, we may be inadvertently depriving ourselves of the opportunity to live a full and productive life.

People who may have experienced emotional, physical, or sexual abuse in their childhood, often have a very difficult time trusting others and thereby forming strong interpersonal relationships as adults.[6] For that reason, I strongly encourage anyone who may have experienced any form of trauma, at any point in their lives, to join a support group with others who may have experienced a similar traumatic experience. When it comes to effectively dealing with trauma, there is strength in numbers.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, trauma is an inevitable part of the human experience. At one point or another in your life, you will probably experience at least one traumatic event. In other words, it is bound to happen.

If you spend the rest of your life trying to avoid traumatic events, you may end up missing out on a whole bunch of the amazing experiences that life has to offer.

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The good news is that you can recover from both the emotional and physical damage caused by trauma, albeit over time, and in many cases, with a lot of hard work.

Featured photo credit: Nijwam Swargiary via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Evan Jarschauer

Professional Mental Health Interventionist & Licensed Psychotherapist

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Published on August 23, 2021

Why Am I Depressed If My Life Is Fine?

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Why Am I Depressed If My Life Is Fine?

If you suffer from depression or suddenly experience bouts of sadness that seem to come out of nowhere, you probably wonder why this is happening. The truth is that there are several possibilities, and you aren’t alone. According to the World Health Organization, in January of 2020, more than 264 million people were diagnosed with depression and is the leading cause of disability worldwide.[1] In this article, I will answer the question: why am I depressed if my life is fine?” I will discuss what depression is and what the possible causes of depression are. Additionally, I will offer some solutions to consider as you navigate the depression you are experiencing.

The question of why you are depressed if your life is fine is one that I can personally identify with, as I can remember a time when I went through an intense depression even though, in many ways, my life couldn’t have been much better. I was financially secure, had a good family, lived in a beautiful place, had a pretty adventurous and exciting life, but none of that could have prevented a serious and prolonged battle with depression.

Given that you are here reading this article now, you will hopefully be able to identify the problem early and get the support you need to fend off any significant depressive episodes, as this can make a huge difference in your battle with depression.

Furthermore, you don’t have to live with depression! Despite the debilitating effects of depression, with the right treatment and support, it is also one of the more “curable” mental health disorders and you can overcome it.

What Is Depression?

Depression is a mood disorder characterized by feelings of sadness, guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, irritability, and in the worst cases, despair and suicidality.

Depression from a clinical perspective is classified into a few distinctive categories, two of the more common categories are; major depression and dysthymia. According to the DSM 5, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual—which governs the diagnosis of psychiatric and mental health disorders—major depression is classified as experiencing five or more symptoms in the same two-week period and must include a loss in pleasure as well as a depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day.[2]

The criteria are:

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  • Loss of pleasure or joy
  • Intense feelings of sadness and depressed mood most of the day, almost every day
  • Difficulty sleeping or disturbed sleep
  • Change in appetite (increased or decreased appetite) and a 5% change in body weight
  • Difficulty focusing, poor concentration
  • Psychomotor agitation or slowing down
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Persistent thoughts of death, dying, and suicide

Dysthymia is an ongoing or persistent depressed mood for a period of two years where you feel sadness more days than not. It will include at least two of the following symptoms when depressed:

  • Poor appetite or overeating
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia (having more sleep than usual)
  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor concentration
  • Feeling of hopelessness

The above symptoms of dysthymia can coincide with the symptoms of major depression.

Causes of Depression

Depression happens for several reasons that I categorize into three: biology, environment, and situation. Depression also tends to occur in more sensitive people, tend to overthink, and get stuck in their thoughts, which—more times than not—are negative.

Biological causes of depression are related to how your body produces neurotransmitters that impact your moods, such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Some people might have a biological predisposition for depression and never experience any significant symptoms but when confronted with a challenging life situation, such as a loss or disappointment, it can send them into a tailspin of despondency and intense feelings of low and sad mood.

Depression caused by one’s environment is more about those you might have grown up with, your family, and your home environment, which could also be connected to heredity. Regardless of your biological predisposition, you learn how to handle challenges in life by observing those around you.

Adults, in particular, are role models for children and will likely deal with life in similar ways as to what they observed. For example, a child who grows up witnessing partner abuse between their parents is at increased risk of either being a victim or perpetrator of violence in an intimate relationship as an adult.[3]

Situational depression, as I mentioned above, can be seen as more of a cause-and-effect relationship. When you are confronted with a particular life challenge or change, such as job loss, geographic relocation, or family and financial stress, these situations can cause you to fall into a temporary or prolonged depression.

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In some cases, depression can be a combination of all of the above.

Examples of Causes of Depression

Below are some examples of situations that might lead you to experience a prolonged period of depression.

Grief

The loss of a loved one, especially when sudden and traumatic, can bring about intense feelings of loss and sadness, which can lead to clinical depression. This includes the death of pets.

Medical Issue or Diagnosis

Being diagnosed with a medical issue, especially if chronic and progressive, is much like any other loss you might experience. It represents the loss of a life you had. Very often, there will need to be changes made in one’s life that will not allow for a lifestyle previously enjoyed.

A Feeling of Failure or Perceived Shortcomings

As I mentioned, people who experience depression tend to be sensitive and self-critical. You might be struggling with not getting a job promotion or failing to progress in the way you imagined for yourself, but this doesn’t mean that you are not progressing in some other way.

Sudden Life Change

Changes—even good changes and welcomed changes—are hard. Sometimes, these changes can have an impact on your role and status in society like marriage or parenthood, which are both wonderful changes yet fraught with many challenges and new social roles.

Feeling Trapped or With Limited Options

Having options is both a blessing and a curse. We know that the more options we have, the less happy we are and the more anxious we might tend to feel, wanting and needing to make the right decision. However, on the flip side, the idea that you don’t have any options can also lead to feeling trapped and feeling that your life circumstances are already written in stone.

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Burnout

Job stress, being overworked and underpaid, or the lack of fulfillment in your profession can lead to depression, which might also coincide with the feeling of being trapped and feeling as though you don’t have many options in your life and career.

What Can You Do If You Experience Depression?

It may sometimes feel as though, out of nowhere, that you are hit with depression, and this is true for many people who have a biologically based depression. However, I would argue that whenever there is something like depression or anxiety—which are defense mechanisms—there is something in your life that is not 100% congruent with who you are and where your life is at or going.

This essentially means that it’s time to take a step back and reassess a few things in life. It doesn’t mean that you will be able to wright the ship entirely. However, you might be able to make some small changes that will help you feel more in control of your life and the direction that you are going in.

1. Consider Therapy

Therapy will help you take stock and think about what is happening in your life and where you might be able to make some changes. Needless to say, you will also have the support you need to embark on making those changes. It could also be a chance to identify what it is in your life that is causing the depression. A therapist can also help you connect to other supports that might help you as you work through this period in your life.

2. Group Support Network

Processing hurt and pain through the group experience is a powerful method of connecting with yourself and others who might be experiencing similar challenges. Part of the value of group experience is knowing that you are not alone and that you have support not just from professionals but also from other people just like you.

3. Self Assessment

Self-assessment involves assessing where you are in your life in relation to your life goals, your relationships, and the direction that you are headed. Maybe it is time to make a pivot and change course, which could be a very scary thing. Bringing this kind of information to therapy will be very valuable and will assist you in the therapeutic process.

4. Take Some Time Off

Taking some time off will be and can be helpful in many ways. If you are experiencing burnout, this will give you more time for self-care and help you give yourself a break. Moreover, taking a time off gives you more time to do some of the things I described above in therapy, group work, and self-assessment.

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5. Are You Bored?

Sometimes, when we lack stimulation or work in a job for which we are overqualified, we might find ourselves feeling underutilized and as if we are not meeting our potential. This would, hopefully, come out in a self-assessment and could indicate the need to make a change in your work life.

Depression and Suicide

Depression is a serious mental health disorder. Thirty to seventy percent of deaths by suicide are attributed to major depression or bipolar disorder.[4] If you or someone you love is experiencing depression and expresses thoughts or statements about death and suicide, consult with your medical professional or mental health counselor. People who receive treatment for depression have an 80 to 90% rate of success from therapy and/or medication.

Suffice to say, if you get the treatment you need for depression, your chances of recovering skyrocket. Again, as I mentioned earlier, you don’t have to live with depression. Get the right treatment,[5] and you can have a whole new lease on life.

Final Thoughts

Depression is a mood disorder that is characterized by feelings of sadness for a long period of time. Many people throughout their lives will experience some depression in varying degrees. If you notice that what you are experiencing resembles any of what I have described above, please know that you can make changes and you can live a life free of depression. Getting help, support, and treatment is essential to addressing the depression or changes in your life that might need to be considered.

More Tips on Coping With Depression

Featured photo credit: Paola Chaaya via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] The World Health Organization: Depression
[2] NCBI: The DSM-5: Classification and Criteria Changes
[3] OASH: Office on women’s Health: Effects of domestic violence on children
[4] Mental Health America: Suicide
[5] Upside Down Flan: The Best Treatment for Depression

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