It’s not just seeing death close-up in war, or experiencing the destruction of a hurricane like Katrina, or the life-altering attack of 9/11 that can destroy our emotional and physical foundations. Nor is it only horrific events like the massacre of innocents in churches or movie theaters that cause trauma.
Psychiatrist Mark Epstein says all of us, or at least many of us, keep hidden under the faces and personalities we show the world an underlying sense of angst and anxiety.
Some of these emotional shadows may have begun in infancy, before we had language to express them, when our needs were misunderstood or not met, a huge territory where human parents are likely to do their best, but still be only human.
“Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life,” said Epstein in an article, “The Trauma of Being Alive,” in The New York Times in 2013.
“There is no way to be alive without being conscious of the potential for disaster,” said Epstein. “One way or another, death and its cousins, old age, illness, accidents, separation and loss hang over all of us. Nobody is immune. Our world is unstable and unpredictable and operates, to a great degree, and despite incredible scientific advancement, outside our ability to control it.”
Epstein delves into this underlying angst in his 2013 book, The Trauma of Everyday Life.
“Facing the traumas we are made of, and the new ones that continually shape us, makes more sense than trying to avoid them,” is the essential message of Epstein’s book.
Looking at the ways Western psychotherapy and Buddhism approach this sense of trauma, Epstein examines the death of Buddha’s mother when he was five days old as one possible reason the great teacher left his own wife and child and embarked on his epic journey for enlightenment.
The current popularity of Buddhism’s mindfulness as one healing technique in dealing with trauma may be helpful, but it alone is not a cure for major or underlying trauma, Epstein said in a talk at Harvard Book Store in 2014.
Psychotherapy can also be helpful in helping people soften the edges of trauma, particularly because a good relationship with a therapist makes room for the trauma to be accepted, in the critical realm of person-to-person, said Epstein. That safe territory can make it possible to find ways to make the trauma easier to bear. That protected emotional territory may come from a complementary blend of mindfulness and psychotherapy, he said.
A main point of Epstein’s book is that acknowledging this underlying trauma of daily life is the necessary first step in finding ways to integrate it into a person’s overall perspective, and in the long-term, dull the edges of pain and expand a sense of compassion for self and others.
“We’re all programmed to want and think we can recover from trauma and get back to who we were before the trauma,” said Epstein. “It may not go away, but become more familiar, and its familiarity may not be so oppressive.”
“Teaching people it’s possible to desensitize themselves to intense emotions, or become more familiar with aspects of themselves they thought were unbearable...” could make those traumatic experiences more bearable over time, he said.
The essence of Epstein’s message about the trauma of daily life is: “The only way around is through.”
Epstein’s theory is that accepting and going through that often unexpressed, underlying trauma that comes as part of daily life can increase a person’s ability to “…make each moment precious.”
Epstein, Mark, The Trauma of Everyday Life, The Penguin Press, New York, 2013
WGBH Forum, July 30, 2014, Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, Mass.,
Epstein, Mark, “The Trauma of Being Alive,” The New York Times, Aug. 3, 2013