Saturday 22 October 2016

Open wounds: Deal with emotional trauma before it deals with you

Published 19/04/2016 | 02:30

Nurture often overrides nature when it comes to determining depression. Picture posed
Nurture often overrides nature when it comes to determining depression. Picture posed

A recent study published in the Nature journal Translational Psychiatry claims that genes are not necessarily a major determining factor in whether a person will suffer from depression.

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The researchers at Northwestern Medicine discovered that nurture can override nature, and our environment has a major influence on our mental health.

A number of leading thinkers in the fields of psychology and psychiatry have argued this for decades, with many of them suggesting that more funding should be put towards helping people deal with the emotional crises that can lead to mental health problems, rather than perpetuating the 'chemical imbalance' myth.

Yet we're still at a curious crossroads. Thanks to countless public awareness campaigns, people are much more comfortable admitting that they suffer from depression and anxiety, even if they're still not entirely comfortable talking about the emotional traumas that invariably precede mental health problems.

We are slowly destigmatising the subject of mental illness, but there is still a stigma around discussing the inner turmoil that often leads to such illnesses with anyone other than a therapist. Nowadays, people are opening up about the antidepressant medication they've been prescribed, but they are still reticent when it comes to talking about the life experiences that may have triggered their depression.

The pain, regret and remorse of bereavement. The loss of identity - and financial security - following unemployment. The family dynamics of addiction. These are cards we tend to keep close to our chest.

Humans are hardwired to avoid pain and our culture compounds the unconscious defence mechanism. Chapters of painful life experiences are condensed into an essay entitled 'Depression' while the cult of positivity and Instagram hashtag #spirituality advises us to make lemonade, soar with eagles and overcome all past traumas by putting a positive spin on it.

A change of perspective, a positive attitude and a few coping tools can help us overcome most of life's challenges. However, the wounds of emotional trauma - the experiences that broke your heart and broke your spirit - can't be covered with the Band-Aid of a motivational mantra or wrapped in the reductive bandage of a 'chemical imbalance'.

The psychologist John Welwood coined the term 'spiritual bypassing' to describe a widespread tendency for people to use "spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds and unfinished developmental tasks".

According to Welwood, those that are spiritually bypassing are "trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it".

The way in which we discuss and deal with mental health problems nowadays has echoes of spiritual bypassing. In our rush to eradicate the stigma around mental health problems, have we suppressed the unresolved trauma that lies beneath?

Have we forgotten that there is a grey area between happy-clappy positivity and soul-destroying depression?

Sometimes we feel happy; sometimes we feel sad. Negative emotions shape our overall mental well-being - as long as we don't avoid them.

The 13th century poet Rumi wrote that the "wound is where the light enters you". This sacred wisdom reminds us that we can grow and learn from pain, so long as we accept it.

Even so, most of us have unresolved traumas - knots of scar tissue that didn't heal because we didn't allow the light to enter. Some delay the healing process with textbook avoidance strategies: workaholism, alcoholism or, as Welwood sagely notes, spiritualism. Some take the medicinal approach without complementing it with talk therapy.

These coping mechanisms cause the pain of unresolved trauma to fester and later manifest as addictive behaviour, disorganised attachment patterns (whirlwind relationships etc), black-and-white thinking and whatever you're having yourself.

If you can pinpoint an emotional trauma that you didn't talk about or a loss that you didn't cry about, it's possible that you could be suffering from the effects of unresolved trauma.

Likewise, if you went through a significant emotional upheaval, but for some reason can't remember how it all unfolded, it's probably because you haven't taken the time to properly process it.

This is especially true for Type A and Alpha personalities, who often avoid talking about their problems for fear of seeming weak or vulnerable, just as it is for those who use humour to deflect serious situations. Codependents are also unlikely to talk about emotional trauma. Due to their soft boundaries, they fear that their real feelings may upset others.

Those with unresolved traumas need to prioritise healing through talk therapy - professional or otherwise - or body therapy. At the very least, they should take the time to reflect on the trauma and remember that the grieving process is very patient. Pain needs to be managed, or very soon it will manage you.

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