August 21, 2017. Brief but breathtaking. The sun and moon aligned just so. A solar eclipse that extended across the continental United States. Millions along the path of 100% totality, millions more seeing the partial eclipse.
As I watched from my balcony, it occurred to me that this celestial drama was an extraordinary metaphor for the interplay of traumatic experiences and mental health. Here’s what I mean:
1. Blinded by the darkness. In a solar eclipse, the moon blocks the sun – the way trauma brings darkness to an individual’s psychological and emotional life. Even though the diameter of the sun is 400 times larger than that of the moon, at these particular moments, the moon has the capacity to completely cover the sun, and darkness prevails. Traumatic incidents – like car accidents, rape, emotional assault – represent a tiny fraction of time and experience for an individual, but the mental health sequelae can be so great that their impact is outsized. And the oversized impact is not just psychological. Traumatic experiences can actually suppress production of new nerve cells such that severe stress can cause up to 13% smaller hippocampal development.
2. More than a few moments. Traumatic events and severe life stressors can be fleeting- like the eclipse- but in the case of mental health, the impact can be enduring. Trauma – particularly during childhood – can negatively affect the functioning of the corticotrophin-releasing hormone axis and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. These are the systems that affect stress response and emotional reactivity throughout life. In fact, suffering severe stress early in life is linked to a host of chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and migraines, and can reduce life expectancy by 20 years.
3. A special lens. Eclipse viewers donned glasses to observe the eclipse to avoid burning their eyes. Interestingly, in the case of trauma, memories are encoded by a distinct mechanism involving extra-synaptic GABA receptors and then stored away, hidden from consciousness- perhaps a protective mechanism to overwhelmingly stressful. The right psychotherapy provides a constructive lens – like the special eclipse glasses – to help us gain a conscious understanding of the trauma and heal. The wrong therapy can be retraumatizing and no therapy can leave these traumatic memories lurking as shadows in our emotional lives – like the wrong glasses or no glasses at all burning our eyes.
4. A universal experience. The solar eclipse is something that millions of people sought out. In contrast, we generally attempt to avoid psychologically cataclysmic moments and traumatic events in our lives. But the truth is that sometimes the sun and the moon in our lives align in just the wrong way and our personal world goes dark. Before life is over, we’ve all been there – perhaps in the wake of the loss of a loved one, an illness, or injury. To go back to the role of psychotherapy, my experience is that often people imagine that therapy can fix the problem, but the reality is that instead of avoiding or fixing, therapy is really about learning to live with and through the emotional eclipses in our lives.
5. 100% totality and beyond. Lots of talk about 100% totality with the eclipse on August 21st – referring to the complete coverage of the sun in the direct line of the eclipse. That was a new expression for me. Most Americans were not in the direct line, and thus, experienced a partial eclipse. This is how trauma and mental illness work too. Those in the direct line are most impacted. But the impact extends way beyond – with those closest to the individual sharing a greater percentage of impact than those further out. The good news is that strong communities – with some individuals needing support and others offering it – help mitigate the long-term consequences of such cataclysmic moments in life.
There will be more total solar eclipses. In fact, they are not so rare. Trauma is not rare either. And like trauma, each eclipse has its own course and impacts different people directly and indirectly. However, unlike most traumatic experiences, solar eclipses can be accurately predicted long into the future. The next one is July 2, 2019, and its path of totality will be crossing South America.