Trauma from another perspective
Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD delayed (symptoms of PTSD displayed beyond six months) are defined as the results of experiencing single catastrophic life-threatening events (DSM IV).
The original criteria for PTSD emerged from observations of some combat veterans who, following life-threatening experiences on the battlefield, alternated between states of emotional numbness and emotional reactivity.
Current thinking holds that PTSD also is brought on by accidents, violence and other criminal acts, natural disasters — a broad range of perceived life-threatening situations.
Trauma, however, is not consistently derived from a single event. Post-trauma stress or trauma states often are compounded by the emotional revisiting of original traumatic experiences, or “trauma repetition.” This creates a painfully resilient memory loop.
The hidden battlefield on the home front (proposing a new diagnosis)
This article serves to introduce a more conditionally oriented type of trauma-stress syndrome, referred to here as domestic emotional stress disorder (DESD). To date, this syndrome has not been acknowledged as a formal diagnosis by the psychiatric community.
The DESD designation — currently identified in alternative diagnostic terms — seeks to highlight the layers of trauma states that exist in average U.S. families. These states, both persistent and enduring, continue to go untreated by the therapeutic community.
DESD is experienced in homes across all strata of income levels, ethnicities and family sizes. Borne of the daily emotional misattunement and emotional neglect of children — often inflicted unintentionally by parents or parental caregivers — DESD establishes the roots of a hidden and unacknowledged long-term stress disorder in young children.
A heavy price to pay for an ill-prepared emotional foundation
Absent the healthful relational home, such children (and later adults) emerge over time with unstable and often crumbling emotional foundations. They are ill prepared for the vicissitudes of life’s single-episode traumas.
Youth separating from childhood, with the inevitable desire for independence, can be overwhelmed to a disastrous degree when confronted with life’s visits of these traumas, or even phase-of-life transitions.
Lacking a vital solid emotional footing, these individuals — children, maturing into adolescents, young adults and even adults — simply cannot process and bear deep personal loss. Or perhaps even the threat of it. Their responses, as a result, are frequently of tragic and catastrophic proportions.
The absence of a relational home often leads to a domestic life in which a constant state of trauma exists. Terror is the underlying condition. Fear is consciously or unconsciously experienced and endured by all in the home setting.
How minimizing sows the seeds of hidden shame
Self-annihilating and destructive thoughts and behaviors may result. There are strong hidden strands of shame, the result of unrecognized painful trauma states.
Degenerative beliefs take root: “My experience does not matter, therefore I don’t matter. I am not important.” These thoughts become embedded in a person’s “organizing principles” (beliefs a person develops, based on experience of one’s self and others).
When emotional care is given little or nonexistent value within a home, the belief often takes hold that these normal needs are unnecessary and a sign of weakness. If human vulnerability and emotional dependency fail to be cherished and nurtured, a focused lens of compensatory rage and shame can emerge, resulting in destructive behaviors against property, the self, or others.
Parents and caregivers of DESD children are tuned into values popularly espoused by our media and society. In addition to housing and food, the providers are expected to provide, in some combination, entertainment systems, sporty transportation, stylish clothing, education and trust funds. As essential as some are to the well-being of youngsters, their well-intentioned providers sometimes focus too narrowly on providing this type of material custodial care.
This often leaves the fragile, creative, and emerging precious emotional world of the child outside the value proposition. The child’s true and inner self receives only the material goods in lieu of the support of a consistent relational home.
As this value set prevails, with emotional needs and the relational home relatively weightless in the cultural equation, trauma states steadily emerge. These unrecognized trauma states often manifest in familiar symptoms such as chronic pain, depression and anxiety. In children, the commonly diagnosed attention deficit disorder; in teens, the oppositional defiant disorder. Often these behaviors are therapeutically misdiagnosed.
Unfortunately, unless we reverse the course of some core family values to include emotional care with contextual meaning (R. D. Stolorow), we will continue to find ourselves on a trajectory of more medications, more personal electronics replacing human contact, and more children and teens crying out in defensive rage and shame — unaware of what they are seeking, only knowing that profound loneliness and isolation sit at the seat of their souls.
An additional aspect of DEST relates to the concept of a “closed family system” (Bowen).
Ideally, single-episode traumatic events are recognized, validated and given a particular meaningful value by families and the community. But DEST traumatic experiences or existences rarely are acknowledged — by extended family members, friends or the community — thus impacting and heightening the unbearable extremities (Alice Miller) of affect and trauma. They are endured without extended support, without collective exposure or awareness.
Hope for healing
Happily, most often parents and parental caregivers are simply “caught up” in the chase and lose sight of, or do not recognize, the importance and necessity of the strong relational home.
Improvement comes with a rededication to one’s children. Essential emotional support, including the creation of quality time. Inquiry into the child (or adult’s) experiences of life accompanied by ample validation, empathy and support.
This profound support for the family — and the embrace of vulnerability and emotional dependency as intrinsic to the human existence — becomes the first giant step toward a return to mental wellness.