September 29th, 2014 · most stressful life events
The most stressful life events can exact a tremendous toll on us. How can an increased level of self-awareness help us to cope with them?
It might seem that stress and self-awareness are unconnected. Yet, the more conscious that we can be of such connections at times when we confront stress, the more in possession of ourselves we can remain.
In the demanding “fall start up” season, many find a vast array of personal, professional and family activities and obligations make claims on their energy and stamina.
What Makes for Stress?
There are many potential sources of stress. It’s created by all sorts of situations that require certain levels of performance, or that demand that we endure certain circumstances or to adapt to changed situations.
One of the greatest sources of stress in the most stressful life events is the way in which an outer circumstance activates a particular unconscious part of ourselves that reacts, sometimes very intensely. We may carry these clusters of potential reactivity within us, and yet be totally or partially unaware of their presence. We’re then be taken by storm when they are suddenly activated by a stressful circumstance.
Analytical psychology calls these inner knots or sensitivities complexes. Some key examples of this kinds of knots of emotional energy are below.
Money Complex. Very many of us have had traumatic or fearful experiences around money or finances in the past. For some, even the slightest financial trigger may activate this complex, with all the fear and defensiveness this causes.
Authority Complex. Like the money complex, those gripped by such complexes have often had traumatic or fearful experiences associated with authority figures in the past, whether the police, teachers or parental figures. For such people, contact with authority may be debilitating.
Performance Complex. For some people, experiences around having to give performances or meet expectations create a mass of negative emotional association that gets activated every time they have to meet certain types of externally imposed expectations.
There are a great many other complexes that can powerfully impact us when we are confronting the most stressful life events.
What do We Mean by Self Awareness?
So, if we are facing an activated complex in the midst of a stressful life event, how can something called “self awareness” possibly help us? Well that depends very directly on what we mean by the term “self awareness.”
If we are talking about some purely intellectual understanding of connections between events in early life, and current levels of stress, it likely won’t help much. But if we enter experiences at the root of the complex, if we understand how those feeling-toned complexes have influenced our lives, and we experience and accept our feelings, we may experience a lessening of the power of the complex, and we can find ways to hold the experience at arm’s length, to some extent, and not just be steamrollered by its emotional power.
Example. I understand intellectually that my anxiety around money takes its cue from the anxiety around money that dogged my father all his life. Yet, it’s quite different to feel the impact on me of incidents like coming home at age three to find him on the sofa, head in hands, crying, because he didn’t know how to pay the bills, and feared losing the family home.
Depth psychotherapy is very often an effective therapeutic approach for removing the power from those highly-charged emotional knots, our complexes, and for holding onto ourselves in stressful life events. In the next post on this subject, we’ll look in more detail at just how this can occur,
Brian Collinson, Psychotherapist and Jungian Analyst