Develop an Emotional Stimulus Package for Dealing Well with Trauma

Develop an Emotional Stimulus Package for Dealing Well with Trauma April 19, 2021

“Three Wise Monkeys carving on the stable of Tosho-gu Shrine, Nikko, Japan.” “The three wise monkeys, sometimes called the three mystic apes, are a pictorial maxim. Together they embody the proverbial principle ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’.” Ray in Manila, April 19, 2018; Creative Commons

We have heard a lot about stimulus packages over the past year as we weather the COVID nightmare. We may debate one another about the merits of this or that economic stimulus package under different political administrations. But hopefully, we can all agree about the need for developing a robust emotional stimulus package for weathering trauma involving a variety of stimuli in our relationships with others.

This subject is important to me on a very personal level. Amid dealing with COVID, my family and I are also enduring the agonizing ordeal of my son Christopher’s traumatic brain injury and comatose state for over three months. It is very easy for me to become overly sensitive to stimuli and come apart emotionally when dealing with various people, no matter how well-meaning they are, given the amount of stress and anguish we are enduring. As a result, I have developed my own stimulus package for self-management. Just as I do not want to go under economically during COVID, I also want to guard against going under emotionally in the face of my son’s life crisis. Perhaps you will find my emotional stimulus package helpful, even as you craft your own when dealing with traumatic situations and various stimuli in your relationships with others.

First, I seek to examine how my trauma might be affecting me personally. My pain and suffering can lead me to misinterpret people and take their responses too personally. It is quite likely that the more sensitive and painful the situation is, the more sensitive I become when engaging people. That said, I often fail to recognize that I am experiencing grief and trauma and just keep grinding away while reacting poorly to stimuli. As a result, I have programmed myself to call a trusted friend, such as Pastor Tom Schiave. Just like my mentor Dr. Robert Potter provides sound medical and ethical advice to me in dealing with my son’s critical care situation, Pastor Schiave provides sound emotional care counsel in helping me deal with my own critical self-care. Just yesterday, he had to highlight for me that the reason I felt and reacted a certain way to someone else was because I was going through grief. I couldn’t see it until he told me. Please make sure you have someone in your life who can help you realize the level of grief you are enduring, as well as whether you are responding objectively to various stimuli. It helps you and me to become more grounded in processing our emotions.

Second, I seek to discern how people with whom I am interacting may be going through a lot in life, too. Just as I need to make sure I don’t take everything they say or do personally, I need to account for what they might be going through personally. None of us are robots. All of us can easily become reactionary  to various stimuli based on challenging life situations. Trying to ascertain circumstances and context for other people’s emotional reactions can help us to pause to provide redemptive responses rather than react in the moment. Along these lines, it is amazing how my perspective changes toward others when I pray for them (rather than against them!).

Third, I seek to account for any possible wrongdoing on my part. In other words, in addition to asking myself what I am going through and what someone with whom I am in conflict may be going through, I need to ask what I might have done to cause them to react negatively in a given situation. In other words, to paraphrase Jesus, I need to take the redwood forest out of my eye before taking a toothpick out of someone else’s eye (See Matthew 7:5). Easier said than done. Why? Have you ever tried dislodging a forest full of redwoods from your eye? It’s going to hurt and it’s going to take a while.

Fourth, I seek to recall how others have been merciful toward me in the past. Remembering how others have been merciful to me when I reacted wrongly can help me forgive others when they react in a negative manner. I don’t want to be like the ungrateful and unmerciful servant. Although his master had forgiven him a very large debt, he did not respond in a parallel manner in the case of someone who owed him a much smaller amount of money. As a result, his master disciplined him severely (See Matthew 18:21-35). I need to recall how others have been merciful to me when I have reacted wrongly and be merciful toward others. After all, those who are merciful will receive mercy (Matthew 5:7).

Fifth, I seek to ascertain whether I raise concerns simply to vent or to vitalize a given relationship. I want to approach others constructively rather than in a deconstructive manner. If I need to vent (and sometimes I do), I share my angst with a trusted friend and colleague who can help me recalibrate and be more constructive in my engagement of someone with whom I experience tension. It can make a big difference of relational import. As James says, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19-20; NIV)

Only after prayerful consideration of each of these five points (and possibly others) am I in position to engage other people regarding possible grievances. These five steps are helpful means by which I build a gap in response to stimuli to be more “response-able.” Daniel Goleman, author of the best-selling volume Emotional Intelligence, speaks of how forming a gap in our response mechanism to external stimuli gives us time to process so that we do not fly off the handle. It helps us become more response-able. Goleman even uses Twitter to response-able effect, when he posts: “Maturity is the ability to increase the gap between impulse and action.” When we increase the gap in our responses, we demonstrate maturity and become more response-able in our engagement of others. It is also worth calling to mind Victor Frankl’s wise approach to life under extreme conditions. As he reasoned in Man’s Search for Meaning, we may not be able to control our environment or other people’s reactions, but we can control how we respond.

There is nothing worse than a hot-headed or over-sensitive individual who only adds to crisis situations by fomenting more crises based on wrongful reactions to stimuli. Creating comprehensive emotional stimulus packages is essential for healthy living during times of crisis.

About Paul Louis Metzger
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology & Culture, Multnomah University & Seminary; Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins; and Editor of Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture. You can read more about the author here.

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