It’s Just Stress, Isn’t It?

Over the last several weeks, I’ve pointed out what I believe are the three major sources of stress in our lives today.  I see them in my practice, at the gym, at church, and over dinner at one of my favorite restaurants.  I’ve catchily coined these stress-inflictors “wealth, health, and stealth”.  “Wealth” stands for our long-standing and devastating financial downturn.  “Health” stands for breakdowns in our physical and emotional health resulting from the downturn.  And “stealth” represents the challenges and struggles of our nation’s veterans as they come home and try to reintegrate into their lives, families, and communities.

Also, over the last several weeks, you may have noticed that I used the word “trauma” to describe what’s been happening to us during the three-plus years of our Great Recession.  When I suggest to people – in my practice, at the gym, etc. – that what we’ve been enduring is not “just stress” and has actually been traumatic, they most often respond, “Oh no, trauma happens to other people.  That’s not me.”  I disagree.

What is stress?  What is trauma?  How are they different?  And why is this important?

Rather than starting with textbook definitions (I prefer a practical, straight-forward explanation over academic jargon any day), I want to give you a real life example to illustrate stress and trauma, and the difference between them.

Let’s say two families live in an older apartment building near downtown.  We’ll call them the Morrows and the Bodens.  Their apartment building has been for sale for some time and the owners have notified the tenants that foreclosure is a possibility.  Well, the building doesn’t sell, the bank forecloses, and it all happens suddenly.  The new owners of the building know several idle contractors willing to work for bargain rates, so they decide to completely renovate the apartments.  The building is in a part of town that is becoming more desirable and they’ll be able to charge higher rents, post-update.  All the tenants must go, and quickly.

From the moment they heard the building was up for sale, the Morrows considered that they might have to move.  When they heard about the possible foreclosure, they put even more effort into spreading the word among their friends and family that they could need a new place to live.  It didn’t seem likely that they would find anything affordable in their current neighborhood, so they started getting to know other neighborhoods, checking out schools, shops, and parks.  They involved their kids in the planning process, letting them know what was happening, in a way that was appropriate for their ages.

When the foreclosure came down, they found a new place – a house in a great neighborhood, actually – but which wouldn’t be ready for them in time for the move.  Again they put the word out to their friends, and were able to temporarily store their belongings in someone’s garage, and stay for a couple of weeks with a relative.  When their new rental was ready, they gathered a big moving party and got settled in fairly quickly.  It didn’t take them long to start making the new house feel like home.

The Bodens had an entirely different experience of their move.  Seeing the “For Sale” sign go up on their apartment building left them almost frozen in fear of being put out on the street.  They hoped against hope they wouldn’t have to do anything, that the building would sell and nothing would change.  When the foreclosure came, and the short notice to move out, they panicked.  Not able to find a place in the same neighborhood that they could afford, they rushed out and grabbed the first place they could find that was cheap and close.

Too upset to let their friends and family know what was happening, the Bodens struggled through the move by themselves.  The parents didn’t really explain what was happening to their kids, who ended up feeling uprooted and insecure.  The chaos the Bodens felt inside left them desperate to stay in control, to get it all done and over with as quickly as possible, and the move ended up being a horrible experience for them all.  On top of that, the Bodens quickly learned that their new apartment and neighborhood weren’t all that great.  They hadn’t checked it out enough to discover that the apartment was actually dingy and depressing and the neighborhood wasn’t safe.  At the end of it all, the Bodens felt regret, disappointment, anger, and discouragement.

Let’s pause for a moment in the lives of the Morrows and Bodens for some definitions of stress and trauma.  I define stress as pressure, strain, or tension on our emotions.  Trauma, however, is an experience, possibly a shock, that goes beyond strain to create significant pain or an “injury” to our emotional selves that may be deep and lasting.

Back to the Morrows and Bodens.  Both families experienced the very real disruption of change, of needing to move and find a new home.  Moving is a stressful experience for anyone.  The Morrows, however, responded to this reality by facing it and asking for help.  They kept their calm but quickly went into action to find a new place that would be right for them.  They communicated with each other and their friends and family, and coped well with the upheaval of their move.  They started out determined to find a good place for their family to live.  The Morrows wanted to create positive change and begin a new stage in their family’s life.  While they felt pressure and strain, they coped and had faith in the process.

The Bodens, on the other hand, avoided dealing with the situation until the need to move was in their face.  The pressure and panic they felt then caused them to close down and cut themselves off from potential help from friends and family.  They didn’t even talk among themselves about what was happening to them and how they felt about it.  The kids felt left in the dark.  The family lost any hope for finding a good place to live, let alone something better than the old apartment, in their frantic search for anything affordable and quick.  They felt wounded and in pain, and lost faith in themselves and the process.

It’s probably not hard to guess which family experienced stress and which one experienced trauma.  The Morrows, now happy in their new neighborhood, accepted and dealt with the stress of their forced move as best they could.  The Bodens, now stuck in a depressing environment, panicked and isolated themselves in their trauma.  The same experience – a quick, forced move – happened to both families, yet they reacted entirely differently.  Why?

This question reveals another key aspect of stress and trauma that I’ll return to in next week’s post.  I’ll also suggest important ways that can help you prevent unavoidable stress from turning into avoidable trauma.  Stay tuned.