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|Written by Dave Combden|
|Tuesday, 07 April 2009 19:00|
Nostalgia is defined as “a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one's life, to one's home or homeland, or to one's family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.” We tend to think of nostalgia as a warm and fuzzy feeling about days gone by, people we used to know, and the sounds and smells of our youth. Nostalgia, in its very essence, is a happy term, meant to instill happy memories. But it wasn’t always so.
It’s only recently that the term nostalgia has been used in a more positive way. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was regarded as a medical disease, replete with weeping, anorexic impulses, and an irregular heartbeat. In the 20th century, it was still viewed negatively, this time as a psychiatric disorder with symptoms ranging from insomnia to anxiety and depression.
Although these types of medical and psychiatric disorders have more to do with ‘homesickness’ and attachment issues, what if the sentiments surrounding your youth are not so warm and fuzzy, the memories not so heartwarming, and the thoughts just downright disturbing? Many people have lived through traumatic experiences that they must face every day. Many of these people do this successfully and go on to lead happy and fulfilling lives, while many others are not quite as successful. During my academic work in psychology, I endeavored to study the differences between people who could successfully resolve a traumatic experience and go on to lead healthy, happy lives, and individuals who were ultimately destroyed by these experiences.
Before we look at the differences between these individuals, it is necessary to clarify a few key concepts. “Resourcefulness,” as it is called in the psychological literature, is basically a repertoire of coping skills. These coping skills range from cognitive self-statements and cognitive reframing to relaxation and receptivity. As an example, think of yourself as an individual who is afraid to fly. In order to successfully board a plane, endure a seven-hour flight and land safely without having a panic attack, you would have to employ various coping strategies to withstand it.
First, you would have to reassure yourself that flying is the safest way to travel and that the chances of an accident are extremely small (cognitive self-statements). While taking off, you would have to reframe the situation in your mind to assure yourself that the loud sound of the engine is a good thing and that the feeling of being pinned back in your seat is normal while going an average speed of 275 km/h along the tarmac (cognitive reframing). These cognitive manipulation activities can be quite tiring and difficult to continue for an extended period of time. As such, relaxation is another important aspect of resourcefulness. Receptivity and relaxation are essential skills to possess in order to absorb experiences as truly unique events. All of these skills, along with the ability to delay immediate gratification and problem-solving skills make up the concept of resourcefulness.
Another concept that is essential to our discussion, but is much more accessible, is the idea of emotional expression. Someone who is at ease with emotional expression is someone who very freely and openly expresses him- or herself. It has been suggested that expressing your feelings orally to friends and family or even though writing can greatly reduce the negative effects of a traumatic experience. The negative consequences of trauma and of “bottling up” your emotions can range from the psychological effects of depression to the physiological problems related to stress.
After reading about these two independent concepts, I hypothesized that possessing a large repertoire of resourcefulness skills along with the healthy expression of emotion should have positive effects on both psychological and physical health following a particularly stressful or traumatic experience.
I found that, as predicted, people who possessed resourcefulness skills fared very well following a traumatic event. They had successfully resolved the experience and appeared to live fulfilling, healthy lives; whereas those people without resourcefulness skills had apparently never resolved the issues at hand and were more likely to be depressed, anxious, addicted, and even suicidal.
I assessed these differences through survey responses and semi-structured interviews, and the differences were like night and day. Where one individual who scored high in resourcefulness talked about a stressful experience, mentioned everyone involved, and spoke about what she learned from it, someone who scored low in resourcefulness talked mostly about herself and spoke about how the event still affected her negatively today.
Without getting into causal relationships, it is clear that levels of resourcefulness are related to subsequent coping of a traumatic event. Also, when one is high in resourcefulness, it appears that ease of emotional expression is almost irrelevant in regards to coping. Ease of emotional expression is only important (and apparently extremely important) when one does not possess resourcefulness skills. This became clear in the interviews with people who lack resourcefulness skills. These people seemed to still be affected by the event and hadn’t really resolved the issue at all.
There was a clear-cut distinction within this group, though, between those who could express their emotions and those who couldn’t. The people who could express themselves appeared to take comfort in just talking to others and sharing stories and experiences with them. Within that exchange there was comfort. They still had not resolved anything regarding the traumatic event, but it didn’t matter. For the people who couldn’t express themselves, they were constantly alone with their trauma. Even for the ones who sought out people with whom to talk, the exchanges left them feeling empty and generally feeling even worse than before. These were the ones who were despondent to the point of depression and suicidal tendencies.
This is the group that needs therapeutic attention. They don’t have the resourcefulness skills necessary to cope with trauma and they don’t have the emotional expressiveness to connect with others. It has been documented that it is difficult to instill resourcefulness skills in people past a certain age (usually 19 or 20), so the therapeutic focus needs to rely on imparting emotional expressiveness skills to people.
Much of our culture is focused on a quick-fix mindset with drugs prescribed to solve problems. Not to take away the healing power of prescription drugs, but many issues need time to heal themselves. Traumatic experiences alter people’s perceptions and worldviews, change the very essence of the individual, and can affect every aspect of a life. To prescribe drugs to treat depression or anxiety following a trauma is not treating the issue itself, only the symptoms. Something needs to be done to help these people, and to give them their lives back.
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