It has been 10 years but as a society, we in the United States, are still reeling from the pain and trauma of 9-11. Some may not be as connected with the event as others, nonetheless the trauma that rocked our world that day has left a deep scar in the hearts, minds and souls of so many.
Our understanding of how a traumatic event impacts our psyches, our mental health has grown since 9-11. An article noted that the events of 9-11 have propelled our understanding of trauma and how it impacts our lives.
We know that trauma can bring nightmares, intrusive thoughts and visions. This can so hard to deal with that some may withdraw or shut down as way of dealing with the onslaught of returning pain. How can we help them?
There are many other options. One is through the lens of existentialism. Authors, Lisa Corbett and Martin Milton look at how existential therapy can help to ease the suffering in their article, Existential Therapy: A useful approach to trauma?
What is the existential approach to trauma? Consider that Corbett and Milton see trauma as part of our human experience. It is not a series of symptoms that can be medicated or treated away individually. Trauma is a part of our lives and must be seen as such in order to even begin to help others who are suffering from the ill effects of a traumatic experience.
The dominant treatment approaches focus in on the managing the symptoms of trauma, the anxiety, fear, insomnia etc.
Corbett and Milton explain the existential approach to trauma within the framework of Emmy van Deurzen, a U.K. existential therapist; the existential dimensions. She believed that human beings are “complex bio-socio-psycho-spiritual organisms, joined to the world around us in everything that we do”. Each of these four dimensions within us is impacted by a traumatic event. Our bodies, minds, social connections and spirits can be harmed by trauma and healed by care.
Corbett and Milton look at each dimension with an existential lens.
The “bio” or the body
The physical is the body, its health and the world in which we live. The body holds the trauma, and a therapist who focuses in on the physical expression of the trauma will have a greater understanding of trauma itself.
The initial trauma leaves a person vulnerable and open to knowing the limitations of their existence. In other words, many who have faced horrific events that lead to trauma are left with a physical memory of their eminent death.
Existential therapy encourages client and therapist to dive deep into the human experience of death and face it head on knowing that it is a part of life that this person has survived.
Culture may influence how someone deals with their trauma. A society that encourages reconnection as way to heal may allow someone closer to their communities’ as a way to deal with the pain. In contrast a culture that encourages a more stoic, stiff upper lip motto to trauma may force someone to repress and deny the trauma.
The existential give of isolation and connectedness is present here. For example, a therapist who is working with the existential approach will see the persons dilemma of wanting to be connected with others in order to heal from their trauma but may want to withdraw to avoid the social consequences of appearing to be weak or damage.
Trauma can shatter one’s perception that the world is secure and stable. That destruction inevitably can shake one to their core, causing them to question their sense of safety and well-being. There is suddenly nothing to hold on to and that may lead one to lose their ground, their connection to self and the physical world around them. Connection to self and our world is what gives meaning to many peoples lives.
Psychologically the shattering can break a vital source of meaning in life, which may lead to depression, stress, anxiety, addictive behaviors and the list can go on.
Working with clients to find meaning in their experience would be the existential approach. Meaning can help one find a new solid foundation to build their new lives upon.
A person faced with death may begin to question their thoughts about life after death or how they are living today. The questions of life and death are part and parcel of the existential therapy. In this work an existential therapist can join their clients in their work of understanding that there is life and death and that they have lived.
When working through each of the dimensions in therapy the client and therapist may be able to “sense, acknowledge and express feelings, while confronting material that was split off during the traumatic event”. The therapist is able to see all four of the dimensions of van Deurzen’s framework Colbett and Milton are working from. The mind, body, spirit and cultural aspects of self can be addressed in the context of existential therapy.
Colbett’s and Milton’s article is not a direct endorsement of existential therapy or any one type of therapy for the treatment of trauma. But they argue that people can only be treated if it is done in a way that acknowledges the whole self, all four dimensions discussed earlier. For them, the existential approach is just one way that can get to the heart and soul of the pain in order to move towards health and healing.
— Makenna Berry