Dr. Christine Dietz
by Christine Dietz, Ph.D., L.I.S.W., therapist and spiritual director at the Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center, and the Center’s Director of Clinical Training
December 2016 – The holiday season is often stressful, especially for people who suffer from physical or emotional distress. The idealistic pictures of happy families offered by the media may be out of sync with the truth of our lives. Due to recent events that disconnect may feel even greater.
Our mission at the Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center is to offer hope and healing to adults and children through attention to mind, body and spirit. There has never been a time when hope and healing were more needed, in our communities, our nation and the world. Conflicts over immigration policy, race, violence, gun control, health care, foreign policy, LGBT rights and gender inequality have intensified. Bragging about sexual harassment and threats to people of color and immigrants became acceptable. And gun violence seems to increase daily. Many of us are feeling weary and discouraged, fearful of what may happen. But for the most vulnerable among us, those fears are all too real. For survivors of sexual assault, racism, and bullying as well as those who came to America seeking refuge from terrorism, these events evoke memories of what has already happened and fears that it will happen again.
According to Bessel van der Kolk*, a neuropsychiatrist specializing in psychological trauma, “we now know that more than half of the people who seek psychiatric care have been assaulted, abandoned, neglected, or even raped as children, or have witnessed violence in their families” (Van Der Kolk, 2014, p.24). These numbers hold true for the Center’s clients as well. Experiences such as these lead to overwhelming feelings of anxiety, depression, despair, and fears for safety. They cause physical illnesses as well as emotional distress.
How do therapists help? First, we acknowledge that these experiences are real – we don’t offer false reassurances or dispute the survivors’ experiences. Survivors are not crazy; they are experiencing the mind and body’s normal response to intolerable stress. We listen, validate, and support people in learning how to deal with the aftereffects of trauma. We help them find ways to feel as safe as they can and to handle the emotions and memories that torment them. We encourage them to reach out to supportive people and communities.
This work will be more difficult now. Already our clients report feeling increasingly unsafe and vulnerable. Survivors of sexual assault report feeling unsafe and experiencing flashbacks. Children of immigrants worry about coming home from school and finding their parents gone. LGBT clients and people of color feel targeted and unsafe. There are reports of increased bullying, racist and anti-Semitic graffiti and hate speech.
What can the rest of us do? Here are six things you can take to make the world safer for the most vulnerable among us at this holiday season:
- Listen – to those who are afraid, and to those with whom you disagree. It can be difficult to sit with people’s fears and discomfort without trying to offer rational explanations, but it is most helpful to acknowledge the feelings without trying to change them. Acknowledge that the feelings and fears are real, whether or not you share them.
- Ask how you can help. Often people just need to know that others believe them and want to support them. Ask if there are concrete actions you can take, and do them.
- Children may be feeling particularly confused, frightened and unsafe. They may not know who to trust. Listen and validate their feelings, and offer realistic support. Let them know that you will do everything you can to protect them and make the world a safe place for them. Do not offer reassurances that you can’t deliver. Do reassure them that it is ok to talk to you, draw pictures and express their feelings in other ways. They need your help to make sense of what is happening.
- Take action. We all feel more anxious when circumstances seem out of control. Identify what you can do – join a group, call your legislator, contact organizations that are trying to make the world a better place and ask what they need. Convene a group of friends and plan actions that you can take together. Donate to organizations whose goals you support.
- Take care of your physical health and that of family members. Fears and uncertainties stress the body as well as the mind. Exercise, relaxation and meditation practices help restore a sense of calm to the body and mind.
- Celebrate the holiday season. Research tells us that connecting to a sense of meaning and purpose helps manage stress. Focus on what you have to be grateful for and what you value.
Shifting your attention from fear and anger to what you can do, for yourself, your family and your community, is the only way the world becomes better. As Gandhi said, “be the change you want to see in the world.”
*Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Penguin Books. 2014.
An abbreviated version of this post appeared in the Urbandale Chamber Newsletter in December 2016