Jan 20, 2010
- Overcome Anything (The Crisis)
A shock can leave you stunned, absorbed, and unable to focus on anything else. When shock is profound, it can be hard to return to life as you once knew it. The case of Duncan S. illustrates this point.
It was a late Friday evening and Duncan was relaxing after a hard day at work. The doorbell rang, and when he opened it, two police oﬃcers waited to talk to him. They sat him down and told him that his wife and two year old son had been killed in a car crash. Later he said:
“I couldn’t say anything. It was as if I was falling down a black hole. I couldn’t breathe properly. At that moment, I couldn’t imagine ever ﬁnding a meaningful life again.”
After this terrible moment, Duncan went through a dark patch. He emerged numb and bitter. It was only later, after he asked for help and completed the ﬁve steps of healing, that he found new meaning in his life. I saw him again, some years after he had initially come to me for help. His hair was prematurely grey, but he seemed to be at peace. He told me that he had left his job at the stock market and now works with disadvantaged children.
“My life has changed so much,” he said. “I married again last year and we’re expecting a baby.” He adjusted his designer glasses. “I will never forget Lana and little Stephen. I am still overcome with pangs of grief now and then—they just come out of nowhere. But my life has got a new meaning now and I’m at peace. I feel I’m making a diﬀerence in the lives of others. Maybe I’ve learned to be less selﬁsh and a bit kinder.”
Crises are usually about loss. It can be the loss of health, loss of a loved one, ﬁnancial loss, or losing a job. With loss, life changes forever. Imagine life as a map. The most important areas of our life take up space in the centre, whereas aspects that are less important are at the periphery. With loss, a major part of our life-map is ripped out. Grieving means coming to terms with the empty areas of one’s life. This coming to terms is a process of integration and we gradually change our life-map so that other aspects begin to ﬁll in the empty space.
The Latin word for injury is trauma. It applies to injuries of body and soul. An injury to the body can be seen, but wounds and scars of the soul are hidden. Unfortunately many people remain stuck in trauma without integrating it. Symptoms of being stuck include anxiety, weight gain, sleep disorder, lack of motivation, and alcohol or drug abuse. Remaining stuck in a traumatic experience can even result in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). People who have suﬀered ordeals, such as violent assaults, disasters, accidents or military combat often suﬀer from PTSD. They face ongoing frightening thoughts, invasive images and emotional numbness.
The body and mind are self-healing organisms. Just as a wound has a tendency to knit together, the soul also heals in time. As Peter A. Levine points out in his book Walking the Tiger, healing from trauma is a natural process. We can access healing through gentle awareness of the way the body reacts to shock, grief, stress, anger, and the many other responses to trauma.
A crisis triggers stress. The body readies for ﬁght or ﬂight. The signals sent out by the brain through the central nervous system start a chain reaction in the body. The adrenal glands begin producing hormones that cause the heart to beat faster. Muscles in the body tense and the pupils dilate. Digestion is slowed and blood is shunted to the major muscle groups. This gives the body a burst of energy to enable it to either stand and ﬁght, or ﬂee from danger.
After the threat has abated, the body systems return to normal via the relaxation response. However, it is possible to get stuck in a condition of chronic stress. Symptoms of chronic stress are numerous, ranging from memory impairment to depression. It can cause and aggravate inﬂammation and weaken the immune system, as well as make us vulnerable to heart disease. Sleep and eating disorders, alcohol and drug dependency and anxiety disorders can also be part of the overall picture of chronic stress. As the following story of Danny L. illustrates, it’s sometimes diﬃcult to spot chronic stress as the cause of ill health.
Danny was in his late forties. Good living and a love of Chardonnay had put some extra rings around his waist and high colour on his cheeks.He worked as an electrical engineer. When he got a new boss, he started having trouble at work. He missed out on a promotion and felt increasingly unhappy and alienated.
One Saturday afternoon, he was mowing the lawn when he experienced a sharp pain in his chest and collapsed. Next thing he knew, a medic was pressing an oxygen mask to his face and he was being rushed to hospital. There, they performed a whole battery of tests upon him. But all were inconclusive. Back home again, Danny began to experience other health problems. He couldn’t sleep at night and had recurring ﬂu-like symptoms. A nagging pain in his abdomen worried him.
After a year of ill health, Danny went to a naturopath to get some advice. She pointed out that Danny might be suﬀering from chronic stress. A year later he said to me:
My life has changed so much in the last year. I hardly recognise myself! I was beginning to feel like an invalid, but now I feel great. I look forward to each day!”
“What changes did you make?” I asked.
“I changed my job. The work I’m doing now isn’t as well paid, but it’s much less stressful. I spend more time with the wife. We’re getting on better now. “He bit his lower lip. “You see, when I was stressed I wasn’t performing that well in bed and she was getting frustrated.”
He took a sip of water.
“And I’ve stopped drinking. “He shook his head. “I tell you that was bloody hard! And I’m a lot ﬁtter. I go swimming and do some jogging.”
I looked him over. He’d lost weight and his eyes were clear.
“What turned your life around, Danny?”
“You asked me to go to counselling. At ﬁrst, I hated it because I’m not used to spitting things out. But then, I got more relaxed. Finally, it was as if a huge weight had lifted oﬀ my shoulders.”