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Monday, July 11, 2016

Psychotherapy Blog: Coping with Psychological Trauma and Asking "Why me?"

When traumatic events occur to people who are ethical, good people, it's common for them to ask, "Why me?  Why did this thing happen to me?  I've been a good person.  I didn't deserve this" (see my article: Coping with Hard Times).

Coping with Psychological Trauma and Asking, "Why me?"

Not only is this a common response to psychological trauma, it's an understandable question because most people live under the unconscious assumption of a "just world" where if they are leading a good, ethical life, they expect that life will be fair and just.

This unconscious assumption begins at an early age for most people whether it's part of their religious beliefs or childhood fantasies that Santa Claus rewards children who are good and leaves no gifts for children who have misbehaved.

I'm stressing that the belief is unconscious because, on a conscious level, at some point in their lives, most people know that tragedy can strike anyone at any time.  They've seen it happen to good people that they've known.

But they have a deep and personal experience of trauma, it can feel like they've been forsaken by fate (or higher power or God, depending upon their beliefs).

Initially, many people who have experienced psychological trauma feel angry and resentful about what has happened to them.  This is completely understandable because when tragic events occur, it can upend a person's sense of how they see themselves and how they perceive the world.

Most of us go through life not expecting tragic events.  This was certainly the case for most spouses and other family members on the morning of 9/11, who expected to see their loved ones come home that night.

Initially, coming to terms with a tragic event can leave one feeling shocked and emotionally devastated.  Soon after, there can be feelings of anger and resentment as well as feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.

The following fictionalized vignette demonstrates how psychological trauma can upend a life and how psychotherapy can help.

Jane
Jane and Martin were happily married for 10  years.  Their relationship was never better and they were both at the peak of their careers when Martin got into a fatal car accident.

Jane struggled for two years on her own to try to make sense of this tragic event (see my article: Coping with Grief: It's Not Unusual to Feel Worse Before Feeling Better).

She couldn't understand why this happened to her and constantly asked herself why Martin was taken from her and "Why me?"

Coping with Psychological Trauma and Asking, "Why me?"

After feeling no relief from her sadness and anger about losing her husband, she decided to try therapy at the recommendation of her doctor.

As she told the therapist about the call she received that day, she recalled it as if it had happened yesterday.

She remembered where she had been standing when she answered the phone.  She remembered looking out the window at the trees in bloom.  She even remembered hearing a bird singing outside her window.

Worst of all, she remembered the feeling--like getting a punch to her gut--when she heard the police officer at the other end of the phone apologizing to have to tell her that her husband died instantly when another driver hit her husband's car head on that day.

She told the therapist that she felt like her vision narrowed and "everything stopped" at that moment.  Everything felt surreal, as if she were in a dream and would soon wake up and see her husband beside her.

But it wasn't a dream.  The events of that day were very real, and every day since that day she wondered, "Why?  Why did this have to happen?  Why me?"

Jane had mixed feelings about therapy.  She couldn't imagine that she would ever feel better about losing her husband.  But she didn't know what else to do, so she sat in the therapist's office that first day and told her story (see my article: Starting Psychotherapy: It's Not Unusual to Feel Anxious and Ambivalent).

Afterwards, Jane braced herself for what the therapist might say to her.  So many people tried to heal her emotional wound by telling her things like, "He's in a better place now" or "Time heals all wounds."

Jane tried to be outwardly diplomatic when people said these things to her because she knew that they meant well.  But inside she was seething.  She felt they couldn't possibly understand what she was going through and she would rather they said nothing than to make these banal comments.

So, she was expecting the therapist to be like everyone else, but the therapist listened and remained attuned to Jane.  She didn't offer Jane any pat answers or try to placate her with trite sayings.

After Jane spoke, she realized that, for the first time since Martin's fatal accident, she felt she was really heard.  She felt that her words and emotions were being contained in the safety of the therapist's office (see my article: The Therapist's Empathic Attunement Can Be Emotionally Reparative For the Client).

To her surprise, Jane felt a small sense of relief after that therapy session, so she made another appointment for the following week.  She still felt sad, lonely, resentful and angry, but she could feel a tiny sense of relief that was new.  She even slept better that night than she had in a long time.

She continued to go to her therapy sessions and talk about how lost she felt.

After a while, she found herself reminiscing about Martin and telling the therapist about how happy they had been as well as some funny things that Martin said.

Memories: Remembering That There Were More Happy Times Than Sad Times

For the first time, she was able to laugh when she remembered his sense of humor, even though she was still filled with grief. This was a new experience for her and she was surprised and curious about it.

To her amazement, she actually began to look forward to her therapy sessions.  She felt that when she spoke about her memories of Martin, he "came alive" for her internally as well as in the room with the therapist.

Initially, she only thought about the day of the accident.

But, as time went on in therapy, she realized that she had many more moments of joy and happiness in her life with Martin that she was now able to access and talk about because her therapist provided her with a safe space for her to do so (see my article: How a Therapist Creates a Holding Environment in Therapy).

After a few months went by, her therapist asked Jane if she would be willing to process the traumatic memory using EMDR therapy.  Her therapist explained how EMDR therapy works and how it could be helpful to Jane.

By that time, Jane had a good relationship with her therapist and she was willing to try it.  After going through the preparatory phase, Jane began EMDR therapy sessions to work on the trauma related to her loss.

EMDR therapy wasn't a quick fix, but by the time Jane and her therapist completed the EMDR therapy, Jane was feeling like a great weight had been lifted from her.  She still missed her husband and remembered the details of the day she received the phone call, but she no longer felt oppressed by the memory.

Coping with Psychological Trauma and Trying to Find Personal Meaning

Soon after that, Jane began to think that she would like "something good" to come out of her personal pain.

This was a new thought for Jane.  She wasn't sure what she wanted to do, but she knew she wanted to find inner meaning, so she and her therapist began to explore what Jane could do to create inner meaning about her experience.

Conclusion
The feeling of "Why me?" is a common experience that many people go through when they experience a deep loss or tragic event.

After the event, life feels unfair.  The world can feel precarious and unsafe.  Some people even have a sense of hopelessness and helplessness to think that something tragic could happen again without warning.

The depth of their sorrow can cause many people to feel that nothing, not even therapy, could help heal  their sorrow.  Some people come to therapy at that point with low expectations, but they don't know what else to do.

The unique experience of being with an attuned psychotherapist is hard to imagine until it is experienced (see my article: Psychotherapy: A Unique Intersubjective Experience).

Therapists who are skilled in creating a holding environment can help to contain even the deepest sorrow to help alleviate the emotional pain.

Experiential therapy, like EMDR, help a client to process psychological trauma so that the experience becomes integrated within the rest of client's life (see my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

Getting Help in Therapy
The shock, sorrow and anger brought on by a traumatic event can be overwhelming without help from a licensed mental health professional.

Therapists, who are trained and skilled in helping clients with psychological trauma, can provide the intersubjective space for healing to begin.

If you are struggling with psychological trauma that you've been unable to cope with on your own, you owe it to yourself to get professional help from a psychotherapist who is a trauma therapist.

Many people are amazed that they can not only heal from a traumatic experience but also find personal meaning and feelings of transcendence.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to heal from psychological trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.