Our Hard Times

Wildfire Recovery and Healing

Wildfire has devastated our community. Lives have been lost, homes and businesses destroyed, and individuals and families dislocated. Firefighters have labored in high-risk conditions. Law enforcement personnel have protected our neighborhoods. Community organizations and countless individuals have stepped forward to offer refuge to evacuees. My heart goes out to everyone in my community who is suffering in the traumatic aftermath of the Wine Country wildfires. Their impact will be felt for years to come.

I’ve worked in the field of trauma recovery for over 47 years. I’ve seen that after a crisis passes, the steps to recovery and healing can begin. While recovering from trauma isn’t simple and will take time, I offer five suggestions for starting the process:

1. Allow yourself to grieve.
Give yourself permission to feel and express your grief. Grief includes feelings of loss and sadness, but also of anger, distress and frustration. Shortcutting the grief process postpones your recovery from trauma. Buried feelings don’t go away, they fester. Grieve your losses.
2. Deal with reality without succumbing to fear.
Traumatic experiences involve threats of danger and loss of control. Fear is a natural response in such situations but allowing your fears to take over will only make your situation worse. Discipline yourself to focus on taking one step at a time. Don’t obsess about the past or the unknown future. So much can seem chaotic and unpredictable now. Ask yourself, what is the next constructive thing I can do? Then act, keep moving forward.
3. Look for new opportunities.
During dramatic upheavals, it’s easy to lose sight of new opportunities. What have you been hanging onto which it would be better to let go of? In what ways would it be better NOT to go back to “the ways things were?” I have seen that trauma produces not only post-traumatic stress but also post-traumatic growth. Change can be for the better.
4. Find things to be grateful for.
What can you be grateful for? I’m not suggesting that you feel gratitude for pain and loss. If you and your loved ones survived the fires, be grateful for the chance to rebuild and start again. If you were evacuated and received support, be grateful for that. If you helped hurting people in our community, be grateful for the opportunity to make a difference in their lives.
5. Help others.
Probably the quickest way to temporarily set aside your own pain is to help someone who is suffering, who may have had a harder time than you. Or, reach out to our first responders who have worked hard to protect us. Continue to care for others and you’ll find your own burdens will feel lighter.

In my years as a therapist, I’ve seen all kinds of trauma – combat, crime, abuse, violence, even our recent financial recession. I’ve helped many people get through traumatic life experiences. I know it can be done. It’s urgent to start the process of recovery as soon as possible after the immediate crisis is over. My staff and I are committed to helping our community to develop resilience, heal and find hope. Let’s reach out, come together, hold each other up. My heart is with you.

Shortages – Of Mental Health Providers and Real Healing

A recent Wall Street Journal special report on health care included a revealing article titled “Where Are the Mental-Health Providers?” Reporter Louise Radnofsky presents convincing evidence and sounds the alarm about the increasing difficulty of finding much-needed mental health care in many regions of the United States.

Radnofsky quotes statistics from a recent study by Mental Health America, a patient advocacy group. The study found that while 42.5 million adults in the United States have a mental illness (18% of the population), the ratio of mental health providers to people in the US is just 1:790, while only 41% of people with a mental illness report receiving treatment.

“That’s prompting a sea change in attitudes among mental health advocates,” Radnofsky writes, “who are starting to look at solutions that are broader than just training more psychiatrists.”

It’s about time. In this month’s article and book excerpt, I explain my thinking on the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde nature of trauma treatment by psychiatrist-prescribed medications. I will stress again that there is an important role for psychotropic drugs in effective therapy. But—too often—drugs are presented as the complete answer for trauma sufferers. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Chemically locking away traumatic memories may help people temporarily, as I’ve outlined above. But I firmly believe that the hope for healing lies in unearthing and resolving the painful past. Drugs can make this process all but impossible when patients have great difficulty accessing their memories. And, over time, serious and life-compromising side effects of medication pile up.

Well-trained psychotherapists play a vital role in our nation’s mental health. I’m all in favor of greater recognition of this serious gap in our mental health system.

A New Yardstick 2014

I’m in the midst of a vigorous bout of simplifying my life, enthusiastically getting rid of a large quantity of possessions I no longer want or need. The process is personally liberating and financially rewarding at the same time. I’m reminded of a blog post from several years ago, during the depths of our recent recession, titled “A New Yardstick.” At that time, many people were working very hard just to keep up financially. I believe today that this same situation is still an unfortunate reality for a large number of people.

When we struggle daily to survive, we get physically and emotionally exhausted. We become vulnerable to negative emotions like worry, frustration, discouragement, and despair. Our view of life can become dark and hopeless. But that view is not an accurate picture of where we are. 

What we need—what I strongly urge my friends and patients—is to find a new “yardstick”.  We need to change the way we measure our progress and success.

Specifically, this means we must stop measuring our success in dollars and cents. That’s an old yardstick we all have in us. It can be easy to mark our progress in life by our savings account balances, the value of our homes, our cars, and other material possessions. Here are three ways to change your mindset and turn in your old yardstick for a new one.

  1. Stop trying to live up to your own unrealistic expectations.

Do you value yourself based on your net worth? If your answer is ‘yes’ to this question, at least part of the time, you’re not alone. Identifying ourselves with our possessions, equating our worth as a person with our money and belongings is a temptation as old as man. Remember you are a unique, valuable, irreplaceable human being with intrinsic worth and abilities. You have immeasurable value in yourself and in the contribution only you can make to the lives of those you love and to your community.

  1. Stop trying to live up to others’ unrealistic expectations.

Does what other people think of you tend to run your life? Do you see yourself mostly through the eyes of others? Have you exchanged the pursuit of your own passion and calling for a pursuit of status or acceptability? If you didn’t feel driven to live up to other people expectations, how would you see yourself differently, and what might you do differently with your life?

  1. Stop using “if . . . then . . . “ thinking.

Does this sound at all familiar? “If I could get (fill in the blank) dollars saved in the bank, then I’d be happy”—or feel safe—or be ready for retirement—or be able to go on a nice vacation—or free to try a new career, the list could go on and on. This is a form of wishful, magical thinking. It’s a way of postponing life and action. The truth is that there are no guarantees. As I’ve written about before, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. While planning is important, we truly need to live one day at a time, making the best of what is in front of us today.

Resilience Cafe February 10th

Resilence_Cafe_Poster_Feb_WebThe next meeting of Resilience Café will be held on Monday, February 10th at Aqus Café from 7:00 to 9:00 PM. Please join us for this continuing public forum for the discussion and healing of trauma. We offer all who attend the opportunity to “Listen, Share, Heal,” as together we fight the stigma often associated with mental health challenges and the isolation trauma sufferers experience from our “hidden epidemic”.

My message – then and now – is one of hope. With help and hard work, trauma can be resolved and transformed to restore meaning and purpose to our lives.

Aqus Café is located at 189 H Street, Petaluma.

A Resolution for Hope

It’s a new year and the news sounds good. The stock market is hitting new highs, employment and housing starts are up, consumer confidence is rising. We’ve just celebrated joy-filled holidays with family and friends and now we can make a fresh start in 2014.

With so many things on their way “up”, why can it be so easy to feel down? Here are two possibilities. The holidays – whether you recognized it at the time or not – were not as joyful as you hoped. Your family relationships may have a history of pain and conflict you’d rather not admit. Or, while the media may report that our economy is improving, your personal situation continues to look bleak. Your life may still feel like a daily grind to make ends meet.

It’s very common, after the rush of the holidays is over, for people to feel let down and depressed. For people with unresolved trauma from the past, this rebound reaction can be particularly exaggerated. Unrealistic expectations for family harmony meet with constrained finances to produce deep disappointment. Discouragement and despair often follow. Hope in the holiday season can degenerate into hopelessness in the New Year. Instead of a fresh start, we can feel stuck in the same mire of immobility.

I write about this phenomenon in my recent book, Trauma: Healing the Hidden Epidemic. In chapter 9, “Crises and Hard Times”, I explain that unresolved trauma can cause people to collapse emotionally and psychologically during prolonged hard times.

“[People] may be stuck in the ‘freeze’ portion of the stress response from prior trauma. Rather than working frantically to solve the problem at hand, these individuals will be paralyzed, absolutely unable to take action. They cannot do what needs to be done to create solutions. Unfortunately, a passive, paralytic response (or lack of response, as it were) can exacerbate their wounded physiological and psychological state, causing them to ignore the needs of the present situation.”

Let me point out something else that people suffering from unresolved trauma often ignore: options. During despair and discouragement, people often fall back into their old default coping patterns. They may put their heads down and keep plowing on without looking around for new paths of opportunity. They may allow the buildup of toxic rage beneath their helplessness to explode in destructive acts instead of looking for new outlets for their energy. The new option they need – to counteract the intensity of their negative emotions – is a new perspective.

Let me illustrate. Again, from my book:

“Remembering the lessons we have learned from past hardships and experiences can be extremely valuable in times of trial. Recognizing that the lessons we will learn from the present challenges will be highly beneficial to other areas of our lives is valuable as well. If we survived the past, we can survive the present. Life experiences – both traumatic and otherwise – prepare us for future challenges that we will be responsible to overcome. They help us develop survival mechanisms and coping skills. In a way, they are blessings in disguise.”

No matter how difficult our circumstances, we always have the power to use our rational minds to explore options and make positive, productive choices. If you are struggling with post-holiday let-down, let me encourage you to make one such choice – come to the third meeting of Resilience Café, a local forum for talking about and healing trauma. We will discuss practical ways to deal with a painful past, gain a fresh perspective, and find new options. Plan to join us Monday, January 13th at 7:00 PM at Petaluma’s Aqus Café, 189 H Street.

I believe each of us have it in our power to make 2014 a truly new year. Add Resilience Café to your calendar and you’ll be making a great start.

The Season of Light

We are entering a season for celebrations, and the symbol of light plays a part in many of our spiritual traditions. Light in the darkness can be a powerful metaphor for important ideas: courage in spite of fear, empathy in place of judgment, love instead of animosity, faith in place of doubt, and hope in the face of despair.

The experience of trauma can cast a dark shadow over our lives. But I believe the light of healing can turn tragedy into an opportunity for change and growth. Often, we can’t find the light we need on our own. Finding the courage to take the first step – asking for help – can start us on the path to transformation.

Those in our community who attended the first Resilience Café last month were able to take some steps toward healing. People filled Aqus Café to capacity the evening of November 11th to learn about emotional trauma, take part in small group discussions, and fight the stigma and isolation so often imposed on sufferers of our hidden epidemic. It was truly an opportunity for all to “Listen, Share, Heal.” Please join us for our next Resilience Cafés scheduled for Monday, December 9th and Monday, January 13th, at 7:00 PM.

Soon, 2013 will draw to a close.  For many of us – including me – this has been another challenging year of struggle and change.  As painful as many of these challenges have been, I am grateful for the opportunities they have offered me. I look forward to 2014 with excitement, trusting that great things can happen when I act with courage and strength. Take hold of this thought and put it into practice in your life. Amazing things can happen.

Resilience Cafe

ResilienceCafe(TM)LogoPetaluma’s Aqus Café was filled to capacity November 11th for the first meeting of Resilience Café, a public forum for the discussion and healing of trauma. Community members of all kinds – veterans, treatment professionals, ordinary individuals – came to learn about trauma and how it might be impacting their lives. Billed as an opportunity to “Listen, Share, Heal”, Resilience Café was created jointly by the Bernstein Institute and Aqus Community. Together, we want to fight the stigma often associated with mental health challenges and the isolation trauma sufferers experience from this “hidden epidemic”.

Aqus Community founder John Crowley opened the evening with a welcome for the packed crowd and an explanation of our goals for the event. In my remarks, I offered a definition for trauma and then briefly outlined the several types of trauma and their symptoms and effects, in simple terms for everyone to understand. Wes Easley, a military and law enforcement veteran and staff member at the Bernstein Institute, shared a personal account of his self-isolating tendencies following a sudden career-ending injury in the line of duty. Small group discussions followed, with an opportunity for all to open up, if they wished, to be heard and to receive support. The evening ended with summaries of each group discussion and my parting message.

My message – then and now – is one of hope. With help and hard work, trauma can be resolved and transformed to restore meaning and purpose to our lives.

Steve Rustad, board chairman for Sonoma Coast Trauma Treatment, filmed portions of the evening and his recording is available on UTube, by following this link.

We plan to make Resilience Café a monthly event at the Aqus Café, 189 H Street, Petaluma. We encourage everyone to join us at our next meeting, December 9th from 7:00 – 9:00 PM.

Meet Me at the Sebastopol Copperfield’s on Saturday, November 2nd!

3D_BookOn Saturday, November 2nd, from 12:00 to 2:00 PM I will be signing copies of my new book, Trauma: Healing the Hidden Epidemic, at Copperfield’s Books, 138 N Main Street in Sebastopol.  Please drop by.  I would love to meet you and personally autograph your copy.

As I’ve mentioned in recent posts, I’ve written my book to describe trauma—its nature, symptoms, and effects—in terms everyone can understand. I’ve included very practical actions you can take to begin to heal the often minimized or dismissed burdens of trauma, for yourself or for someone you love.

I’ll be happy to answer any questions you have about trauma and how it can be healed.  I’d also like to ask you to consider buying an additional copy—or copies—to give to people you know who are struggling with difficult circumstances or have been exposed to trauma.  I want to get my book into the hands of anyone and everyone who needs to hear a message of hope in hard times.

My thanks to Michael Fanning, and to Sebastopol Copperfield’s for hosting this event and for being an all-around great bookstore!

Hope to see you then!

Inaugural Issue of the Trauma Newsletter

Trauma_Newsletter_Nov13-1I’m excited to announce the arrival of the first issue of our newest publication, the Bernstein Institute Trauma Newsletter.  Each issue of the newsletter will contain helpful, practical articles on the subject of trauma, along with a personal note from me on a vital issue catching my attention.  My aim is to consistently provide accurate information and positive inspiration for everyone who has been touched by what I’m calling the “hidden epidemic” of our time.

This first issue includes two articles: “Financial Crisis, Trauma, and Reinvention”, covering the continuing, painful repercussions from our Great Recession; and “Military Suicides: Part One”, the first in a series exploring the facts and trauma-related issues underlying the dismaying spike in suicides by military personnel.  Also, in “From Peter”, my personal answer to the question, “What is emotional trauma?”

Soon, we’ll have a way for readers to subscribe to the newsletter through our website.  For now, please follow the link to download your copy today.

6 Hurting Women

On February 26, 2012, trauma and tragedy entered the lives of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.  It entered the lives of the Martin and Zimmerman families.  And on June 24, 2013, trauma and tragedy entered the lives of six anonymous women called to civic duty in Sanford, Florida.

For 14 days, they listened to and watched the unfolding testimony of violence.  For three weeks, they spent their evenings isolated in a motel room. At the end, to the best of their abilities, they formed an opinion, reached an agreement, and rendered a verdict.  In the case of the State of Florida vs. George Zimmerman: Not Guilty.

It’s abundantly clear that Trayvon Martin and his family, and George Zimmerman and his family have suffered severely—and in Trayvon’s case, suffered the ultimate loss of life.  In the aftermath of the verdict, we might tend to overlook the painful experiences of the jury.  Since the verdict, the media and the nation have been obsessively second-guessing the jury’s decision and questioning their character and integrity.  This onslaught of criticism and blame adds to the burden they now carry from their exposure to emotionally disturbing images and evidence.

I’m not going to weigh in on George Zimmerman’s innocence or guilt.  I believe Mr. Martin and Mr. Zimmerman were both victims of their encounter.  But I do know the women jurors committed no crime and yet are being tried in the court of public opinion.

Another thing I know—they are suffering from secondary trauma.

I define secondary, or vicarious trauma in my recently published book, Trauma: Healing the Hidden Epidemic.  “Secondary trauma,” I explain, is “stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person”.  It can also result from witnessing disturbing or horrific events happening to others.  Anyone who is exposed to suffering is at risk for secondary trauma.  As a psychotherapist who helps people heal emotionally painful issues, I am intimately aware of the professional dangers of vicarious trauma.  Left unaddressed, it can lead to depression, burnout, and the urge to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.

What do I do to prevent my secondary trauma exposure from taking hold and causing personal deterioration?  I cover that topic in my book also.  There are deliberate, constructive activities and attitudes that can make recovery possible.

Here’s my list of recommendations for the Martin/Zimmerman jury, and for all witnesses to tragedy (from Chapter 8, “Danger Signals and Trauma First Aid”):

    1. Know that part of you goes on “pause” when you witness a disturbing event.  You may not be able to fully feel and react to what you’re experiencing at the time.  However, you must go back, after the experience, and work through your feelings and reactions.  Don’t bury them.
    2. A caring network of friends and family can be of great support and comfort.  Use them.
    3. Take extra care of yourself both physically and emotionally.  As much as possible, slow down, rest, eat well, exercise, put off major decisions, keep your life simple, and stay with what’s easy and familiar.
    4. Give yourself permission to feel or see things differently because of your experience.  You are not the same person you were before.  Don’t sink into embarrassment or shame; don’t judge or criticize yourself.
    5. Absolutely do not isolate yourself.  Isolation will start you on a fast downward spiral.  Share what has happened to you with supportive loved ones.
    6. Deliberately cultivate positive experiences, such as creative pursuits, dinner out, or watching a favorite movie, as part of your recovery.  Don’t just anxiously “keep busy”.
    7. If necessary—if you feel stuck or haunted by what you’ve been through—seek professional help, either short or long term.

The bottom-line truth in the case of Florida vs. Zimmerman is that no one came out a winner.  Everyone involved, everyone who has been touched by the events in Sanford, has suffered to some degree.  If you have experienced trauma, and I believe everyone does at some time, then I urge you to follow my suggestions above.  Buried trauma never goes away.  It’s never too late to heal.  That’s one of the central messages of my book, Trauma: Healing the Hidden Epidemic.