Existential Roundup

Welcome to the Existential Roundup, where we bring you links to some articles currently trending that may be of interest to those in the existential-humanistic psychology community.

As this weekend is Memorial Day, it seemed appropriate to think about those who have experienced great traumas, and have often been labelled, for better or worse, with diagnoses of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

What particularly piqued my interest in revisiting this subject, besides the timeliness, was an article in Wednesday’s The New York Times entitled “The Civil War and P.T.S.D.” While it is no surprise that PTSD is not new to the 20th and 21st centuries—we know of many cases from both World Wars, often labelled as battle fatigue or shell shock, to make it sound more war-related. When all else failed, a soldier may have simply had a total nervous breakdown, whatever that may have meant. However, this article tells the story of Edson Bemis, a Union soldier. Bemis was severely wounded at the Battle of Antietam, then two years later fighting in the Wilderness, and then again in 1865 at Hatcher’s Run, VA, when a Minié ball struck him in the head.

Somehow, Bemis survived the physical wounds and moved to Connecticut with his wife, Jane, following the war to begin a new life. However, it soon became clear that things were not “quite right” with Bemis. As his symptoms increased, his need for care, which was not very good and did not really know what to do for him, increased. And Bemis was not the only Civil War soldier to suffer such a fate, historians are now discovering, the article tells us.

We have come quite a long way in our understanding of traumatic experiences and that is helping to create new approaches tailored to individual needs. Bessel van der Kolk, who has been researching trauma and working with people who have experienced trauma for more than 40 years, has developed a new approach based on psychomotor therapy. In an article in The New York Times Magazine, Jeneen Interlandi, the author, describes attending van der Kolk’s workshop “Trauma Memory and Recovery of the Self,” where one participant volunteers to participate in this process, based more on dance therapy and other participants help by playing roles or by offering to hold a hand in support. The idea, according to van der Kolk, is to help trauma survivors learn to tolerate their own bodily sensations. Then, he says, the mind will follow. He said in all his experience with working with trauma, the approaches that try to treat the cognitions first simply do not work.

Ron Capps, a Foreign Service Officer and Army soldier, chose writing as his path through PTSD, as detailed in an article in New York Magazine. Capps had moved around from Kosovo to Afghanistan to Iraq to Darfur, and was writing all the time as he witnessed horrendous atrocities. According to the article, it was only years later that he realized he had enough material for a book—Seriously Not Alright: Five Wars in Ten Years—where he not only tells the story of what he saw but also how he coped, mostly through the journaling process.

However, some veterans may need an entrée in to be able to journal or even participate in therapy or group therapy sessions. The Verge reports and features a video about a veteran who had been struggling with PTSD for many years and then had heard a television report about people who had successfully tried MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD. The journey this man took was a bit “off the beaten clinical path” but is another example of how unique each person’s recovery from trauma needs to be since each person’s trauma experience is so unique.

Sadly, as the Huffington Post describes, once applied, the label of PTSD is a stigma that often follows veterans wherever they go—job-hunting, apartment-hunting, or even re-settling with their families and friends. Some veterans express beliefs that the label says to others that “Oh, they might go ‘postal’,” when we all know ANYONE can go “postal,” as evidenced by the outrageous number of mass shootings in the last several years alone perpetrated by nonveterans. For these veterans, a label of PTSD is akin to having a prison term on their resumes. And with the current nightmarish state of affairs at the Veterans Administration, it becomes harder and harder for them even to get basic medical and psychological treatment—the treatment they are entitled to by virtue of signing up to defend their country.

On this Memorial Day weekend, take a moment, if you will, to remember what our veterans have done for us, even if it is just to watch one of the three days of war movies on Turner Classic Movies (one of my all-time favorites, Twelve O’Clock High, with Gregory Peck, will be aired on Monday night May 26 and that is a classic movie on coping with the horrors of war during the fight). And then, if you so choose, take a moment to see what you might be able to do honor and support the individual experiences of veterans and their traumas.

Thanks to Erica Stanton for her research assistance.

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