Stress-Hardening

I recently attended a two-day training on Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) which covered the processes for defusing and for debriefing groups of people who have been involved in or exposed to a traumatic event (school shooting, natural disaster, first responders to an accident). The majority of trainees were chaplains working for my employer, a large MCO with multiple hospital facilities and clinics around the state. Others of us were nurses employed in those hospitals, just a few like me “oddballs” from other employment roles. I had taken the two years ago, so this was a re-certification/refresher but it turned out to be a quite new experience nonetheless.

Not because the material has changed – it hasn’t. I am in a much different mental/emotional space than two years ago, partially because of the unexpected and somewhat stressful recent change in my personal circumstances. The instructor warned us at the start of the class that some of the exercises might bring up aspects of our past life experience. I did not anticipate that the training would take me back so far into my past – to 1980 and the New Mexico prison riot that occurred on February 2nd of that year.

For that trauma, I had no such thing as incident debriefing, no opportunity for defusing of the strong emotions generated by the events; whatever working through I accomplished was done on my own. The aspect of that experience which became salient during the training was my response of a strengthened commitment to speaking out on behalf of what I believe it is important to emphasize in our communal life. In my own case I think I settled on causes that show respect for all persons and implementation of fairness and justice in interpersonal and group interactions. I recognize, however, that a similar experience could push another individual to settle just as firmly into a commitment to a path of vengeance.

From the perspective of trauma-hardened reaction, might one better understand the deep divides within our society today? Is it possible that too many of us have experienced (possibly unrecognized) traumas, not had the benefit of any sort of defusing or debriefing, and moved on into strongly held positions regarding values and actions as a means of “getting past” the traumatic events?

Putting things behind us without examining them and understanding their effects is a common reaction, but evidence proves it is not a particularly healthy one. The unexamined or un-dealt-with issues have a way of recurring. Classic example being the person who gets through the death of a parent seemingly without problems and then falls apart a year later when a pet dies.

A number of my friends have chosen, of late, to try to understand people who hold opposing views on the social issues creating so much conflict in our society these days. They are attempting to reach across the divides, to find common ground, to offer understanding, to create a cognitive (thought) framework for how divergent belief systems can be reconciled. While I applaud the motivation behind the effort, I have reservations about their likelihood of success. Not success at grasping a divergent view, but serious question as to whether any reconciliation can be achieved.

Reconciliation requires not just a cognitive but also an emotional shift, and one strong lesson from the critical incident stress management training was that the cognitive and emotional realms are two very different levels of response to trauma. In counseling, one technique often used to help troubled individuals is a cognitive re-framing, which can lead to a shift in emotional response. If I have experienced non-communication as disrespect, but learn that the lack of communication was the result of a technical failure (Internet shut off by a controlling government), the expectation is that I will then be able to free myself from the hurt and anger associated with feeling disrespected.

That kind of framework shift does seem to work in a broad-brush way. Indeed, I just read an article today about the importance of words as framing perspective. An example was asking if you would rather be in a relationship that ends, or that breaks up? Another question pertained to how many people would gamble with $50 if they would lose $30, versus would gamble the money if they knew they could keep $20. Although the end result, a minimum of $20 in hand, was the same, far more people would gamble to “avoid losing $30” than would gamble when they knew they could keep $20.

What the CISM training brought out by contrast is that when dealing with traumatic events, there is frequently a very deep divide between cognitive and emotional domains. While the defusing and debriefing techniques do initiate a cognitive re-framing of the experiences, it is a given that processing reactions to trauma will take time, and may include a variety of feelings and behaviors that are totally unfamiliar to the individual experiencing them.

When the traumatized individual has the benefit of a debriefing or subsequent mental health counseling, the outcome can be both reassurance that the unfamiliar reactions are not abnormal, and a healthy resolution of the anger, fear and other harsh emotions the trauma has brought up. Too often though, we experience trauma without any, or adequate, support. Is it any wonder, then, that we end up locked into tightly held beliefs or behavior patterns that do not allow us to understand, let alone accept, others different from ourselves?

The timing of the CISM training has served me well, to expose within me the residue of an unresolved divide between cognitive understanding and emotional response to multiple earlier traumas that have cumulatively established me in a pattern of somewhat set beliefs. My spiritual path would label these sanskaras, lifelong patterns of thought, values, beliefs that are rarely if ever recognized or examined – the stuff of which self-concepts are made. To reach the goal of self and God-self realization one must recognize and detach oneself from the illusion that the Self is the same as that mental self-concept. Not an easy process. Who and what am I, if I am not the collection of values and beliefs that have directed my behavior throughout my life?

I don’t at this point have any answer to that question; I do know that the answer is not something of which I can have any idea. Ideas are mental elements, and the Self is not knowable through mentation.

Which refers me back to my recognition during the CISM training that the divide between cognition and emotion can be huge, sometimes unbridgeable, and a metaphor for the divide between a mental concept of self and our true Soul self. Just as we benefit from a facilitator to help us bring the two parts of our response to trauma into perspective and balance, we need a qualified teacher to help us clarify what we are  – and are not – as spiritual beings. Without the facilitator we risk getting trapped into rigid belief and behavior patterns that move us past, but do not resolve, trauma. Without a spiritual teacher we risk getting stuck on the karmic wheel of life , repeating the same lessons over and over because we do not learn from them.

Once again, I remind myself that my spiritual Master instructs his students that “recognition is enough”. We do not have to ‘fix’ what we see is wrong, indeed we cannot do so. We do need to see an issue clearly, recognize it as another of the mental illusions we wish to shed, and then detach, leaving the work of removal to be done on us, for us, through us but not by us.

Now why does something so easy so often seem so hard?

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