Severe emotional distress is a normal part of human experience, even though we might sometimes act like it isn’t.
I’m writing this on November 11th, when we commemorate the sacrifices of all those Canadians who served in the military and experienced war or conflict. This year saw something very significant happen in Canada’s remembrance of our veterans.
For the first time ever, Canada’s Silver Star mother, Anita Cenerini, was the mother of a soldier, Pte. Thomas Welch, who took his own life on a Canadian Forces base after returning from overseas combat duty. She worked tirelessly for 13 years after her son’s death to gain official recognition that his suicide was directly connected to traumatic experience incurred in the Afghanistan war zone.
The recognition of Ms. Cenerini as a Silver Star mother marks a very important step in our growth as a nation. We have just marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1. Many soldiers came back from that war suffering from “shell shock” as it was called then, and struggled with the stigma of being perceived as weak or cowardly. Canada now recognizes that Pte. Welch’s death was the direct result of untreated severe emotional distress from traumatic experience in active military service. This is genuine growth in our consciousness as a nation.
The Pain of Severe Emotional Distress
We still see a certain tendency in our culture to regard severe emotional stress as some kind of a flaw or deficit in the individual who has it. This is often true even when we ourselves carry the severe emotional stress. As a therapist, I’ve often been privileged to witness individuals sharing their own experience. Often peoples’ stories involves a high level of emotional suffering. Yet often the individual will follow up by assuring me that he or she is weak, or self-indulgent, or telling me, in a phrase well-known to /a-midlife-transitions
, that “lots of people are worse off than me!”
Such individuals are right, of course. In almost all cases, it is possible to find someone somewhere who has had it worse. Yet, recognizing that doesn’t change anything about the fact that the individual sitting in front of me is dealing with a harrowing amount of severe emotional distress. We sometimes need to just face up to that fact, in a self-compassionate way.
Unacknowledged Severe Emotional Distress
If we deny the reality of our emotional pain, if we minimize it, or find some other way to run away without dealing with it, we can expect to pay a heavy psychological price. We can certainly find ourselves experiencing intense anxiety or depression
. We may also find that our lives get diminished in a range of ways, as when we end up running to addictions — to food, alcohol, drugs the internet, work or a whole range of other things — as a means of coping with severe emotional distress. Or, we may simply lead very small lives, in an effort to avoid situations where we might re-experience our pain.
How can we acknowledge our pain, and move towards finding some sort of healing or growth, without being overwhelmed by it?
There is a great deal of research evidence to back up what Jungian case studies
and other depth psychotherapies already know from clinical experience. As UCLA Prof. Annette Stanton et al.
have established through research in the area of physical illness, actively processing and expressing emotions reduces distress. Conversely, avoiding and denying strong negative emotion can easily lead to worsening symptoms. Very often, expression and processing of severe emotional distress is best done in a controlled, safe, accepting environment, and many have found that /a-midlife-transition can provide an environment that facilitates healing and allows the individual to move more fully into his or her life.
Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst
© 2018 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)