The Foibles of Appraisal

A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it. —- Oscar Wilde

It has been said that there are many distinctions without a difference, but sometimes distinctions define the differences that matter most. Among a variety of circumstantial experiences, how we interpret undesirable situations in particular can determine our potential for encountering psychological damage in general.

Isolating the tyranny of circumstance from the tyranny of self is one of those crucial bifurcations that separates what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to as the “experiencing self” from the “remembering self.” What we believe about ourselves in relation to remembering a traumatic incident or personal injustice can exacerbate the intensity of what we actually experienced at the time it occurred. Similarly, the acknowledgment of something being abysmal does not obligate one to endorse a perpetuation of the abyss.

Albert Ellis, the purveyor of all things rational, once commented, “People don’t just get upset. They contribute to their upsetness.” To be philosophically copacetic, this quote can appear dismissive and more than a bit depoliticized when recognizing the emotional devastation that could be expected on any spectrum of trauma. However, this proposition has merit when considering the black hole of masochism that often ensues whenever we assume full responsibility for random misadventures. In other words, to what degree does emotional incrimination and relentless self-criticism become a long-term liability in the wake of misfortune? To employ a useful analogy, sometimes our perception of temperature is disproportionate to the actual temperature. Variables such as wind, humidity, cloud cover, and the location of the sun influence perception in ways that can make temperature feel warmer or colder. Likewise, the fluctuating variables of experience are subject to a wide range of interpretations that can be negatively internalized or retroactively exported at the expense of those around us. Ironically, it’s the perpetual exchange of experiences that makes our lives possible. Similar to the emergence of temperature due to particle friction and the effects of thermal radiation, everything that can be classified as a positive or negative experience is inexorably tied to the onslaught of unavoidable interactions.

The development of a psychological “filtration system” to identify experiences that are central to constructions of identity rather than incidental is another distinction with a qualitative difference. For example, the arduous ethical convictions and philosophical insights developed through enduring life’s fluctuating variables should be central to our concept of self. On the contrary, being defined by the unpredictability of circumstance is not only unsustainable; it’s insane.

Post hoc assimilation of experience allows for the selective integration and re-interpretation of events without feeling conscripted to an immutable narrative. Likewise, validating the fluidity of process keeps us from emphasizing the significance of any interval within a process.

To be held hostage by a crisis should not result in being a lifetime apologist for the crisis itself.

Unreasonable Reasoning

Every individual acts and suffers in accordance with their particular teleology, which has all the inevitability of fate, as long as they do not understand it.Alfred Adler

The phrase “everything happens for a reason” is a perniciously irksome expression. It would be better to say that everything happens because of assorted causation, but I suppose that doesn’t have enough poetic appeal. For example, if a tornado descends on a family of five—sparing only the youngest child—we should comprehend this misfortune as being caused by a rotating column of air near the earth’s surface (a tornado will demolish a home or community center with as much indifference as it would a liquor store). There is no need to say that the tornado happened for the child to learn a valuable lesson about bereavement while creating an opportunity to connect with an estranged relative. Likewise, it’s not very nice to tell children born with neurofibromatosis or leukemia that it happened for a reason. Manufacturing meaning to explain tragedies is not why tragedies occur in the first place; rather, the “meaning” represents a psychological buffer that promotes self-satisfied solace (albeit temporarily) in the wake of destruction. However, this type of specious perspective is short-sighted, conspicuously simplistic, and can appear distastefully insensitive to those whose suffering cannot be ameliorated. When used as a teleological anodyne, creative interpretations of trauma are simultaneously dishonest and intellectually bankrupt.

False consolation and convenient narratives, however well-intended, prolong our misunderstanding of reality and compromise human resilience for enduring future catastrophes. Furthermore, to say that everything happens for a reason diminishes the horror and sociopolitical responsibility with such historical atrocities as the Holocaust, the plight of Native Americans, slavery, and the Spanish Inquisition. There is no cosmic blueprint hanging on a ledge in the outer reaches of space providing intrinsic meaning to all random and non-fortuitous events. This is not to say, however, that wisdom cannot be gained from traumatic experiences. More importantly, we must learn to adapt to experiences that are not imbued with grandiose meaning via radical acceptance.

In conclusion, if your observational propositions do not align with reality, you may want to adjust your interpretive lens (altering reality is not an option). Cultivating compassion and solidarity starts with not lying to ourselves, or anyone else, about the nature of circumstance.

Harmonious Momentum

In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on. — Robert Frost

When discussing the fundamental differences between adaptive and maladaptive behavior, it’s necessary to understand that maladaptive behavior typically emerges as an adaptive response to undesirable stimuli. A behavior or thought process is often considered maladaptive retrospectively, after a period of negative psychosocial consequences have been assessed and significant impairment in functioning has occurred. However, I would submit that every behavioral response is adaptive during the initial stages of trauma and less-than-optimum cognition may have been useful at one time. The brain’s reaction to trauma depends on a variety of genetic and environmental circumstances, but general responses to trauma often involve an inability to emotionally shift past the primary event. “Neurons that fire together wire together” is a neuroscience axiom that emphasizes the impact traumatic events can have on memory. As such, memory influences emotion, and the ability to reconcile an event may vary based on the type of trauma, the intensity of the trauma, and the sensitivity of the individual.

The psychologist Francine Shapiro refers to the concept of adaptive resolution as a functional integration of trauma processing when describing EMDR intervention.* Although she does not claim to reveal the neurological mechanisms involved with dysfunctional memory storage, she does refer to a static-state phenomenon where the brain indefinitely recycles a disturbing event when triggered by various environmental cues.¹ For the sake of conceptualization, I would say that reconditioning the limbic system is another way of thinking about trauma reconciliation. From a localization perspective in neuroscience, the amygdala is considered the brain’s hotspot for emotional reactivity and the hippocampus works primarily as a memory storage component. However, what’s not often mentioned is the limbic system’s role in determining things worth ignoring, since this job is usually outsourced to the brain’s cortical regions. The amygdala, for example, also plays a role in identifying when we should relax instead of being paralyzed with fear. In other words, if all systems in our limbic apparatus are running smoothly, hypervigilance should be countered by due diligence. Problems arise when a significantly disturbing event overrides the regulatory responses of neuroanatomical correlates so that a checks-without-balances effect takes place.

Victims of trauma have described the experience of grief as “a desire to stop time,” while witnessing horrific events or enduring physical abuse has been know to induce a sensation of “everything slowing down.” It should be obvious that the brain is protecting itself by adaptively switching off select regions of activity to focus attention on primary concerns for purposes of securing safety and allowing space for comprehensive introspection. Unfortunately, this well-intended adaptive response can overstay its welcome, and what was once useful can outlive its usefulness … hence becoming maladaptive. Of course, something clearly was moving too quickly or too abruptly for processing during the traumatic event, so it’s only natural for the victim to respond to incoming stimuli with subsequent trepidation. Unfortunately, the world and everything in it continues to move like a whitewater rapid steeped in indifference (this is why the rejoinder “get over it” is considered a tasteless and ineffectual form of motivation).

Incorporating a useful analogy at this point may demonstrate how the body and brain can unintentionally act against its own self-interest. For example, in cases of arthritis and encephalitis, the physiological response to antigens is inflammation. Inflammation alerts the body that a problem exists and ensures limited movement on behalf of the host, but long-term inflammation with arthritis can cause worse problems such as further tissue damage and chronic pain. In addition, seizures, coma, or death can result when the inflammatory response to encephalitis runs rampant. Similarly, behaviors and thought processes that initially serve to safeguard well-being can invariably implode when their expiration date is not realized.

The body is a dynamic system, and the mind is what the brain does. With maladies such as PTSD, depression, or substance abuse, the person suffering may refuse to move, can’t move, or (more often) doesn’t know how to move. Facilitating mental vitality to offset stagnancy is the key to uprooting negative experiences, because the byproduct of persistent engagement leads to improved daily functioning and eventual acceptance via psychologically congruent processing. Incremental change based on subtle realizations can, in turn, reverse engineer the cognitive constipation of traumatization when maladaptive responses that were originally meant to be adaptive are adaptively reconfigured.

In two words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about recovering from unfortunate life events: keep moving.

1. Shaprio, F. (2001). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Second Edition. New York: The Guilford Press

*non-specific effects notwithstanding

Image by Lori Anne Parker-Danley. Thicket, 2015. Gauche and oil pastel on paper, 15 x 22 in.