“Everyday Trauma”

The Trauma of Being Alive By MARK EPSTEIN, August 3, 2013.  www.nytimes.com/2013/08/04/opinion/sunday/the-trauma-of-being-alive.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&   Epstein is a psychiatrist and author, most recently, of The Trauma of Everyday Life.

“Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence. I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder. There is no way to be alive without being conscious of the potential for disaster. One way or another, death (and its cousins: old age, illness, accidents, separation and loss) hangs over all of us. Nobody is immune. Our world is unstable and unpredictable, and operates, to a great degree and despite incredible scientific advancement, outside our ability to control it.. The closest one can find to a consensus about it among today’s therapists is the conviction that the healthiest way to deal with trauma is to lean into it, rather than try to keep it at bay. The reflexive rush to normal is counterproductive. In the attempt to fit in, to be normal, the traumatized person (and this is most of us) feels estranged.

While we are accustomed to thinking of trauma as the inevitable result of a major cataclysm, daily life is filled with endless little traumas. Things break. People hurt our feelings. Ticks carry Lyme disease. Pets die. Friends get sick and even die. . .  the traumatic underpinnings of life are not specific to any generation. The first day of school and the first day in an assisted-living facility are remarkably similar. Separation and loss touch everyone. . . The willingness to face traumas — be they large, small, primitive or fresh — is the key to healing from them. They may never disappear in the way we think they should, but maybe they don’t need to. Trauma is an ineradicable aspect of life. We are human as a result of it, not in spite of it.” 


“Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.”                                                                          – Peter Levine, PhD, In an Unspoken Voice                           Peter, through his trauma-healing modality, Somatic Experiencing (SE), offers the skillful means of titration (beginning with a small enough amount of any overwhelming traumatic experience to be manageable within the nervous system’s current capacity for containment), pendulation (following the natural rhythm from activation / arousal / contraction to settling/calming/expansion so that one does not get sucked into the “trauma vortex” and re-traumatized), and containment. (see SE maps for recovery: SE Maps for recovery ). From small, titrated beginnings we now know how to restore an ever increasing “window of tolerance” so that the capacity to experience strong sensation and emotion increases safely.

Psychotherapy and Meditation 1:47:01 In this talk, Dr. Epstein addresses the overlap between psychotherapy and meditation from the perspective of a Western psychiatrist whose introduction to the study of the mind came through Buddhist meditation. Drawn from his studies of both D.W. Winnicott and the Buddha, he uses the Buddha’s own inner struggle as a model for our own. Epstein, a Harvard trained psychiatrist with a private practice in New York City, is the author of a number of works about the overlap of Buddhism and psychotherapy, including Thoughts without a Thinker, Going to Pieces without Falling Apart,  Psychotherapy without the Self, and The Trauma of Everyday Life.

Here is a link to a partial transcript from the talk, above, beginning around minute 57: Mark Epstein quotes .  I particularly appreciate Epstein’s contemplation of the Buddha’s loss of his mother when he was 7 days old – a circumstance I have also contemplated deeply; Dr. Epstein is the only other person I have ever heard mention it. And the description of one of his patients:  “I feel like a person alone in a sailboat in the middle of the ocean, clinging for dear life to the mast.”  I had a very similar experience in a meditation (I was clinging to a fragment of the boat in a huge storm at sea) that has continued to reverberate through my understanding of myself. Epstein’s response to his patient was a further resource for my own healing process.