2021 – The Year of Redemption
Most of us have known someone who has been through a significant trauma that caused symptoms of PTSD and many of us have even experienced this kind of trauma personally. The DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) states that this “Big-T Trauma” is caused by exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” or witnessing “the event(s) as it occurred to others.” Experiences like physical or sexual abuse, catastrophic events, and exposure to combat and war all fall into the category of Big-T Trauma and it probably comes as no surprise that these kinds of experiences cause major problems emotionally for those who have been victimized. It wouldn’t be uncommon for individuals with Big-T Trauma to have symptoms like intense anxiety, nightmares, problems with concentration, irritability, emotional reactivity, and hypervigilance. My hunch is that most of you reading this article would have tremendous empathy for people that have been through Big-T Trauma and you might even recommend they get professional help to ensure they recover and are able to live a productive life. What many people might not understand is that there is a growing body of research that suggests people who experience stressful events that are less intense, but more chronic, tend to have emotional reactions that are similar to individuals who have suffered through Big-T Trauma. These “Little-t traumas” are the stressors that happen to all of us at one point or another, like the loss of a job, a messy breakup, the loss of a loved one or an unplanned major expense. The research shows that when people experience multiple little-t traumas all at once it can seriously challenge our ability to cope. It’s the cumulative effect of little-t traumas that really cause our problems over time. While one little-t trauma is unlikely to lead to significant distress, multiple compounded little-t traumas that happen within a short span of time are more likely to create trouble with emotional functioning that looks very similar to the PTSD symptoms of those who have suffered the more intense Big-T Trauma. Now, indulge me for a moment and allow me to bring this discussion of trauma home for all of us as we near the end of 2020. I think it would be safe to say that the overwhelming majority of people have had quite a few little-t traumas this year that have had a cumulative effect upon their emotional functioning. When you string together the emotional fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, combine it with the incredible drama of the presidential election and you throw in a little national racial tension, that is the recipe for serious emotional issues that might even mimic some of the symptoms of PTSD. The statistics on mental health over the past several months tell the little-t story quite well. Depression, anxiety, suicide, and addiction relapse are all on the rise considerably. The demand for services at our clinics in Central Florida is extremely high. The bottom line is this: the emotional toll of all that we have been through together this year is mounting and we all need a roadmap to a healthier emotional functioning in 2021. To heal from all the little-t traumas of 2020 we are going to need to be intentional about how we execute a healthy strategy of reclaiming our path to peace in the new year. Here are a few steps we can all take to shed the stress of the little-t traumas of 2020 and walk boldly into 2021 with confidence.
Step 1. Acknowledge the Shock and Awe.
The reaction to the chronic stress facilitated by the little-t traumas are tied not so much to the events of 2020 but to the way our brain processed the information. Basically, an event which exceeds our capacity to cope is stored in the brain just like a Big-T Trauma. For many of us, the events of 2020 came so fast and furious, and were so overwhelming, we didn’t fully process all the information. We were overloaded with too much information, too much chaos, and too much drama. This kind of trauma experience in the brain essentially shuts down higher level frontal lobe processing and leaves us feeling numb and disconnected. Intellectually, when the brain is in this state of shock and awe, we lose our ability to creatively solve problems and might even struggle to find hope for the future. The first step in finding a path of hope for 2021 is to acknowledge that we haven’t fully processed how traumatic this year has been. Understanding that we might feel numb, stuck, and hopeless is key because it will highlight the need for Step 2: reprocessing the emotion of 2020.
Step 2. Feel the Feels.
Ironically, it’s important to look back and reprocess the feelings attached to our difficulties this year to ever find freedom from them. I would encourage you to take out a piece of paper and draw out a timeline of 2020. Acknowledge moments that were difficult and trying and also those moments that were hopeful and even exhilarating. Now as you walk back through the year and identify high points and low points, try to assign an emotion to each experience that seems meaningful (both good and bad). This reprocessing should help you do some of the emotional work that was difficult to work through in the moment due to the traumatic nature of what was happening in your brain. It would also be very helpful to work through the feelings of 2020 by involving people you are close to in your processing. Look at your timeline and tell the story of 2020 to someone who will take the time to listen to you. Telling your story, including the nuanced emotions you have attached to each event, will help you reprocess and heal the traumatic memories of the year. For some of you this will seem very uncomfortable, but you might be surprised by how much distance this exercise allows you to feel from some of the drama.
Step 3: Take Redemptive Action
It is important to take control over the traumatic events that seemed out of your control in 2020. Taking action restores a sense of control and directly counteracts the sense of powerlessness that is the identifying mark of trauma. Look back at your timeline of sentinel events in 2020 and brainstorm any way you can feel a sense of power over the events that seemed to happen to you. No action is too small. Just look for any way you might feel even a measure of redemption in whatever domain of your life was adversely affected. For instance, if a friendship was broken by a political conversation that got ugly, do something that might build a bridge back to a healthy relationship. While making a conciliatory phone call or writing a kind text might not fix all the hurt, it will help you feel like you are doing something to repair what was broken.
Step 4: Decide to GROW in 2021
Like it or not, there is never a more powerful moment in which we can learn and grow as in the aftermath of trauma. While the brain doesn’t process well during the trauma itself, if you follow the steps I have outlined above, you will be faced with the opportunity to look deeply at the very emotional processes that accompanied the trauma. During times of stability we can put on an emotional mask in life that allows us to present only an acceptable version of who we are to other people. But when we are emotionally crushed during times of pressure and even pain, what is really inside us comes out. The honesty of acknowledging our emotion about the events of 2020 will present us all with the opportunity to authentically evaluate who we are when the pressure is on. Look deeply at how you responded to adversity and learn. What emotions are you proud of? What reactions make you cringe? What behaviors did you see in others that you admire? Those realizations will help you approach the new year with goals and resolutions that actually matter in the grand scheme of things and they will give meaning to the pain we have all been through. 2020 was a year that was inherently challenging, frustrating, and yes even traumatic. Nonetheless, we can all choose to admire the resiliency of the human spirit and trust that we had the fortitude to keep moving forward together. Here’s to a new year full of healing, redemption, and growth! HAPPY NEW YEAR!