Group Psychological Warfare: Existential Land Mines
Dammit women! Get down! Those dirty Naps are coming!
A forceful yank and then a gentle shove to the cold concrete ground startled me. The lights in the hospital room dimmed and the shades drawn. The metal-framed door slammed quickly shutting off human contact and other intruders. Shock, fear, and adrenaline racked my body. Three psych techs pounded on the door after seeing what happened.
After the initial shock wore off, I surveyed the discomfort and heavy resistance embodied in the hospital room. I sensed that there was no immediate danger present at that time. The electricity of raw human emotions and fear of death clouded the room. The unease of the unknown was flowing freely amongst the group and clouding the judgment of its participants. Looking up from a squatting position, with burley and elongated arms that wrapped around me like a shield, was a man shouting orders to “arm the troops” and “prepare for battle.” The ringleader’s eyes were dilated and fixated, mirrored with uncertainty and bleakness. Crouching as if awaiting marching orders while evading the enemy, seven servicemen huddled by the door. Each one held imaginary automatic weapons, as if these imagined weapons could slay their enemies.
Breaking from traditional symptom management, I wanted to honor the subjective and traumatic experience of the group participants by utilizing existentialism. Yalom (1980) used existentialism in a group format to work with the presenting issues such as traumatic paralyzing anxiety. These men were paralyzed by fear, not caused by real enemy fire or immediate danger, but the anxiety that resonates within each of us. Yalom (1995) postulated that group dynamics allows members to reconnect with the self, others, and hopefully, some aspect of the world in which they live. Pitchford (2009) points out that “the experiences are ongoing and not “post” traumatic but are continuing to afflict the traumatized individual who is confounded by disorder (e.g., stigma) in the individual’s culture in its response to the individual’s experiences.”
For these seven servicemen and their ringleader, fear of death has been a daily and lived experience. Death—metaphorically, literally, and symbolically—took on different meanings for each group member. These meanings were provoked and manifested by a combination of ruptures and fear. Learning to respect the group construct and one another’s individual beliefs marked a turning point in this group’s process. During the hour-long group, participants were able to express their traumatic stories and the fears that plagued their existence. Pitchford (2009) said, “that the underlying premise of existential therapy is to understand and appreciate how the clients experience their world and the therapeutic encounter as being real (448).”
Honoring the diverse meanings, fears, and experiences in the group, generated the opportunity for autonomy and possible positive outcomes in treatment. Pitchford (2009) said that, “clients are encouraged to become aware of their experiences, their potentialities, and how they interact with the therapist.” After some gentle guidance and acknowledgement of the resistance in the group, an organic and dynamic process came forth through their interwoven conversations. This dynamic shift allowed for the group members reconnect to their fragmented traumatized self and live a more authentic existence. As I saw first-hand as spent that time startled on that cold concrete floor, the bravery and fearlessness that was portrayed during this group hour was a humbling experience.
Pitchford D. B. (2009) The existentialism of Rollo May: An influence on trauma treatment. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 49(4), pp. 441-461.
Yalom I. D. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.
Yalom I. D. (1995). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy (4th ed.). New York: Basic Books.
-- Natalie Caron
Today's guest contributor, Natalie Caron, M.A., M.Ed. LPC, is a doctoral student in clinical psychology (Psy.D) at Saybrook University.