Posted on Oct 9th, 2006

During the Katrina Hurricane disaster, I read about a couple who migrated from Louisiana to the State of Florida. They were very fortunate that their home and cars were untouched but because of the threat of disease due to flooding and the lack of drinking water, they were forced to leave. The husband was in the Navy and he, his wife, children and what belongings they could salvage to stay with a friend. Their car was parked in a lot within view of their motel dwelling unit. The next morning, the wife noticed that the car was missing and another parked in its place. They had placed over $10,000 worth of their belongings in the vehicle. Later, the car was found and returned without too much damage but their belongings were gone including his Navy uniforms. He said that he was beginning to feel angry bit realized that he could do nothing about the occurrence. Then he indicated that he needed all the energy he could muster to do what needed to be done for his wife and children in light of the circumstances.

A “double whammy”! How much stress can people endure? In my research and work with people to help them manage the stress in their lives, I was always amazed at the resilience of the human spirit in the midst of misfortune. Although they were hard pressed to realize it because of the trauma of whatever befell them, most people demonstrated amazing strength and endurance. It seems that the thrust of the stress that they experience enables them to muster their resources in a manner so as to deal forthrightly with whatever the circumstances might be. It might be after the fact that they will feel very vulnerable and incapable of functioning for a time but not during the episode.

I remember a time when, as a new parent, I could hear my son thrashing in his bed upstairs shortly after we had put him up for the night. I ran up the stairs two at a time to find that he was having a convulsive seizure as a result of a spiked temperature. Now, I had never experienced anything like this before but somehow I remembered reading about placing the child in the bathtub in lukewarm water. My wife followed me upstairs and although she was a pediatric nurse, she panicked. I told her to tend to the child while I drew the bathwater. I took him from her and placed him in the tub, splashing the water over his body in a methodical manner. In the meantime, she ran to a neighbor’s home for help. When they returned, my son was fine and I handed him over to my wife who had since calmed down. However as I sat on the tub’s edge, I began to feel faint and my neighbor grabbed me to stabilize my balance so that I wouldn’t fall into the tub.

How interesting! I don’t know how I remembered reading that piece about how to treat a convulsive reaction but I know it had been some time previous to the incident that I did. I don’t know how I had the presence of mind to calmly implement the solution in the midst of what was a very frightening episode but I did. I don’t know why my wife was prone to panic while I was calm and why I “folded” when she recovered but it all happened as I described it. Now, I know that the endorphins that come into play offer a physiological explanation but there is also a psychological element that takes over enabling those kinds of reactions as well.

I would define stress as the result of an event that occurs over which we have little or no control. It would seem that the keyword here is “control”. The more that we need to maintain our need to be in control, the less able we are to deal with whatever the stress is that might come our way. The reason for this is that our control tends to limit our ability to accept what has happened “for what it is”…something that is quite necessary in order to bring whatever forces to bear that are necessary in order to deal with a given situation. The reality of the occurrence is, of course, very difficult to accept…perhaps even to imagine as with the Katrina disaster. However, it did happen! Once we can accept reality for what it really is, we can then begin to apply whatever remedies to the occurrence that might be necessary.

Many of us, though, have a great deal of difficulty accepting reality and try to change it…if only in our minds and emotions. We call that avoidance. It’s like a “temporary fix” that helps us to feel better for a short period of time…or maybe even for a long period of time. Avoidance is a normal, natural phenomenon that allows us to recover from certain traumas. However, I’m not talking about an initial psychological reaction to stress. I’m talking about those who tend to use avoidance as a “way of life” that can severely interfere with their life adjustment/management process. We need to be aware that avoidance doesn’t change the reality of what happened at all and, if time is of the essence in dealing with a situation, then we’ve “boxed ourselves in” by doing that.

Sometimes we can practice a sense of avoidance from the time we are very young. Perhaps a vignette about a man that I worked with will illustrate more this point more effectively.

VIGNETTE

He was the eldest of seven children in a family that demonstrated very little emotion in their relationships with one another. A particularly important facet of his growing up was the manner in which his father treated his mother. She had a drinking problem and was constantly belittled by her husband in the children’s presence. As a result, the children had little respect for her either as a mother or as a person. Essentially, she was persona non grata in the family. My client unknowingly brought that sense of a woman’s role into his adult life.

He was a very good athlete but no one from his family ever came to any of the many competitive sports in which he engaged. To add insult to injury, on one occasion he tried out for the school basketball team and was invited to be a part of the newly picked team’s introduction to the student body. Everyone who was to make up the team was introduced and recognized except for him. This was just one more experience that reinforced his sense of not being “good enough”.

He dated several women before he met his wife. His description of those relationships tended to approximate the treatment of women to which he was accustomed. His wife-to-be was a very attractive, warm, loving, intelligent and expressive woman. As it turned out, both partners had some reservations about whether to get married because of the problems that he had expressing feelings and attuning himself to her emotions. However, love prevailed and they married despite those reservations. Now, several years into the marriage with children, the problems persist on an even more intensive level. Despite several suggestions made for him to try, it proved to be extremely difficult for him to relate to her on an emotional level despite his deep love for her. The issues that were discussed would leave him feeling very vulnerable and exhausted. He would often say that he was overwhelmed by it all and felt that when his wife would let him know what she needed that he wasn’t “good enough” and rejected by her.

Essentially, he never resolved the feelings he had in reserve regarding his relationship to his mother. Even as an adult, he would avoid her in much the same manner in which he avoided his wife’s expressing her emotional needs to him. In addition, the guilt that he unknowingly suffered as a result of his treatment of his mother did not allow him to change the adult pattern that plagued him and their relationship. This was truly a sad situation especially in light of the love that each partner felt for the other. It is, however, an example of how avoidance can be carried on for many years resulting in the pattern becoming so rigidified that changing it was nearly impossible. Thankfully, the couple resolved their differences and did not split. Fortunately, the wife was not only supportive but insistent that her husband “come around” to deal with his feelings toward her which he was able to do albeit with great difficulty

And so, as we experience stress one of the vital issues demanding our attention is the role that our emotions play in any given situation. Despite the fact that we may have dealt with all of the other factors surrounding the event, if we don’t pay attention to the feelings that we experience, there cannot be complete resolution. I have an adolescent granddaughter living in Vermont who is going through some relationship problems. She uttered these words in an e-mail: “Life can be sooooooo hard at times.” I replied that that was a true statement but “sometimes we tend to make it much harder.” I also pointed out that instead of her looking to others to tell her what the “right thing” to do might be that she “make herself proud” by listening to her feelings instead. Maybe we all need to practice that philosophy.

REFER TO PREVIOUS BIO

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