Dr Matt Welsh is an American clinical psychologist providing psychotherapy to war veterans experiencing PTSD, substance abuse, anxiety and depression at the Government funded Veterans Affairs hospital in Chicago. He also runs a private life coaching practice specialising in helping clients who are struggling with life transitions, and is the editor of Spiritual Media Blog, which publishes interviews and podcasts with authors who write about spirituality, psychology and inspirational entertainment. Matt is 38. He was born in Indianapolis and he and his wife now live and work in Chicago.
Matt and I met when he invited me to write a blog for his website after Living Fully, Dying Consciously was published back in January. I was immediately interested in interviewing him about his trauma work for my own blog. Just as we were setting up a time, Covid struck. We both agreed that it would be a good idea to wait a few weeks to see what kind of traumatic impact this pandemic was going to have on us all.
Sue: Hi Matt, it’s such a pleasure to speak with you at last. It has certainly been an interesting time for us all since we last spoke! But before we get into Covid and trauma I want to begin by asking how you became so interested in the spiritual aspects of life?
Matt: I’ve always been interested in spirituality as part of my psychology work, but it really stems back to childhood. I grew up more religious than spiritual – but became increasingly aware of how much pressure I was putting on myself to meet a lot of these external standards that society sets for us. I was meeting those standards, but I wasn’t really happy, I wasn’t really fulfilled, and I was really stressed out. So, I started to study more about spirituality and discovered how meditation helps you to connect with your highest self and your intuition. I read a bunch of books about spirituality and philosophy and really saw some wonderful results. I then got interested in how film makers and authors were portraying some of these ideas through movies and books and even TV shows and music. I love reading books but there’s something really special about watching a movie where you can see a character going through a transformation; films like What the Beep, Field of Dreams or It’s a Wonderful Life really touch the core of humanity, showing people at their best. This really inspired me to think about how to incorporate some of these ideas into my work, my blog and my personal life.
Sue: I am really glad we gave Covid a bit of breathing space before we had this conversation because so much has happened during these past ten weeks or so. Obviously, we British have had different experiences to you in America but in essence we are all dealing with the same issues. For me personally, one of the most difficult things has been the way Covid has been reported in the media. I find it incredibly one dimensional and I wondered if you are experiencing the same.
Matt: It’s been hard to follow this in the media because I think unfortunately, they have tried to sensationalise it. I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of it. I think it’s really important to understand just how serious an impact this is having on people’s lives, their physical and mental health and their social lives. So, to some degree I’m glad that those issues are being highlighted in the media. But I think they [the media] are also trying to appeal to our fear and sensationalise this. At times I feel like they’re giving us mixed information – different information or just enough information so we click on the headline or read the article. It makes us just anxious enough for us to want to come back the next day and click on the headline again. The thing is we don’t really know what’s going on. Personally, I try to limit my media in take to where I want to know what’s going on but not become overwhelmed by it so it adds anxiety and stress.
Speaking as a psychologist with a huge amount of experience in working with trauma, I see this [reports in the media] as feeding us with confusion which creates anxiety. This is truly going to create trauma responses in people. Typically, there’s a primary trauma response when people have been exposed to the fear of death or fear of serious bodily injury or they’ve witnessed this with someone close to them. There’s a secondary part to trauma, which is when people feel very anxious and are living constantly on the edge of hyper-arousal to the point where they want to start avoiding reminders of or memories of potential threats. People also experience nightmares – and I am now talking to clients who have dreams or nightmares about Covid. They are dreaming about going to a movie theatre or restaurant and they become so anxious they want to leave.
So, from a behavioural perspective you are starting to see people becoming so apprehensive that they will now begin to avoid any potential threat. This is a tricky situation because in some instances, avoidance behaviour does serve as a protection – for example maintaining social distancing or keeping to your own safety. But in the long run what a trauma response does is you start to avoid potential threats when there is no threat. This Covid anxiety is making people so fearful they don’t want to leave their house – and may never want to return to restaurants, movie theatres or shopping malls.
This is why right now we really need to address some of these mental health concerns before we address economic concerns. If people are traumatised, they’re going to be so anxious that they will never want to go out anywhere again.
Sue: Yes, that’s definitely happening in the UK as well. The British are more naturally reserved than the Americans to be fair, but there is a lot of that going on. Then there’s the gung-ho lot who don’t believe that Covid exists, and it’s a hoax. Is that happening in the States as well?
Matt: Yes, it is. I would categorise people probably in about three groups. One group who look at Covid as a hoax, which I think is really unfortunate because it creates an almost reckless disregard of safety precautions. That’s really not helpful. A second group is showing some of these extreme anxiety and trauma responses, which is increasing isolation and loneliness – these are people who may be unwilling to leave their house. And, there’s a middle group who recognise some of the potential risks – they are willing to take some of the safety precautions by maintaining social distancing, wearing masks and are going to be courteous and respectful to other people – but they’re still going to try to live their lives to the best of their ability.
Sue: Do you think that Covid is bringing up everyone’s unresolved trauma issues?
Matt: To a certain extent, yes. There are some common themes that I’m hearing when I work with people in therapy – which you’re seeing across the world. For example, it’s bringing up existential anxiety because, to a certain extent, it’s making us confront our own mortality. I think this is making people revaluate and prioritise their life. They are asking themselves, ‘What’s important to me?’ It comes down to family and friends, physical and mental health or just being grateful for some of the simple things in life that they may have taken for granted.
Sue: Yes, I’ve heard so many people saying the same thing. Obviously not everyone feels like this, but I’ve spoken to many people who say, ‘I don’t want to go back to how life was.’ But, where do you go with this desire to live differently?
Matt: I think it’s not about putting a silver lining on something that’s very painful but recognising the potential to create the light that people want to create. I am working with people who are saying, ‘I don’t want to spend ten hours a week commuting to a job anymore. I want the freedom to work from home, and this extra time has allowed me to eat dinner with my family for the first time in years.’ So, I am seeing some really positive results.
Sue: Do you think this pandemic is helping some of your clients to look at the reasons why they might be traumatised? I mean, Covid could be seen as a trigger for doing this.
Matt: Yes, I hope so. At the very least from a global and cultural perspective, I think it’s destigmatising some of the stigma related to trauma or seeking therapy. Even Government websites are using words like, ‘trauma’, ‘grief’, ‘anxiety’, ‘loneliness’ and ‘isolation.’ Instead of viewing these as a weakness or deficit, they’re talking about how important it is to address them.
Sue: I’ve noticed this too. I am particularly heartened by how often the word ‘death’ is being mentioned in mainstream media these days. It’s like it’s out there now – it’s being owned rather than hidden away.
Matt: Yes, I think it’s helping us all to reprioritise – and it’s causing some people to say, ‘Yes, I’ve been traumatised by this – my anxiety levels are higher than ever before, and I feel lonely and isolated because of it.’ They no longer feel embarrassed or stigmatised by having these feelings.
Sue: I guess the other side of the coin would be to use it as an excuse – to feel victimised by the virus.
Matt: Different people respond to trauma differently. We don’t know exactly why. There are risk factors, but not everyone who experiences various risk factors has symptoms of PTSD when they are faced with a trauma. So, even though, for example, childhood abuse is a risk factor, it doesn’t “cause” or mean someone will definitely get PTSD. But sometimes trauma does cause people to go into their victim mentality and they end up coping with it through drugs or alcohol or other unhelpful behaviours. So, yes, you are going to see some people go into that mindset.
Sue: I know I am banging on about the media, but I really don’t think they help with this – certainly in the UK. In my experience, they are literally feeding on people’s fear of death but when you look at the stats in reality there seems to be an incredibly low probably of getting Covid, and an even smaller probability of dying of it especially if you are fit and healthy. I accept that Covid is contagious, but I am questioning whether it’s as deadly as we are being given to believe. Of course, I understand that some communities are more at risk especially if you have underlying health conditions or you are frail and elderly – and this may be the tipping point. I realise everyone’s life is precious, but I do find the way the media is portraying everyone being at extreme risk as misleading and confusing.
Matt: There are some TV channels and websites which definitely do play this up because raising anxiety levels gets people to return to those channels or websites. In fact, I’ve heard news corporations are making more money now through advertising than they have in years. So, yes, anxiety does play to their economy. This is happening because there’s not a whole lot else on TV at the moment and what’s happening does affect people’s lives directly. It’s a really challenging situation because what people are going through is traumatic. It’s really sad and really painful for a lot of people. Speaking as a psychologist, I think it’s important to acknowledge the pain and sadness and provide some reasonable safety precautions. But don’t go too far to the extreme of victim consciousness. It’s about being empathetic and compassionate without getting stuck in that victim mindset.
Sue: That’s shocking about TV advertising. I really agree with you about the importance of striking a balanced approach. And, maybe a more balanced approach will help us all to start engaging with our mortality in a much healthier way.
Matt: Yeah, in some of my therapy sessions I do ask people about their beliefs and fears around death and dying – it opens up some existential and spiritual conversations. In some cases, of course, this doesn’t necessarily help because it brings those fears to the surface, but for other people it helps them to recognise, ‘Okay, I don’t want to die, but if I died, I could be with my family who are already in the afterlife,’ or ‘I’ve lived life to the best of my ability,’ or it may spark them to say, ‘There are certain things that I want to do before I die – I want to make the most out of my life right now.’ I don’t think it matters if you have a belief in the afterlife or not. Talking about death can really force you to live your best life and to realise that the time you have is so precious.
Sue: In my experience, when we admit to our mortality it helps us to see the bigger picture. Trauma is so inward looking, it keeps us in such a small, restrictive place, but if we open up to our mortality it opens us up to a different view of life and death.
Matt: Personally, I believe in the afterlife, so for me when I was faced with this Covid pandemic I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to die, but if I do, I will spend time [in the afterlife] with my family – they will all die eventually!’ And, I do believe in spiritual beings and angels who are there to protect me. So, the thought of an afterlife is comforting for me – and you know, those in my family and even pets in the afterlife right now are being taken care of. Talking to others and reading about others who believe in the afterlife is comforting. That being said, this motivates me to accomplish things before I die. There are certain personal things and professional goals I’d like reach. I would like to travel more – so yes, it does motivate me to live my best life.
So, trauma can help us all to start thinking about some of those bigger questions – even looking for greater meaning and purpose. There are research studies where they found that people who experienced trauma and gained greater meaning and purpose because of it, had lower PTSD symptoms. That’s pretty powerful if you think about it. This means that these people are going to have less nightmares, less anxiety, less isolation and better sleep.
Sue: I’m a great Viktor Frankl fan. Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the most iconic books ever written about confronting death through trauma, and how meaning and purpose is essential for healing.
Matt: Absolutely. Man’s Search for Meaning had a huge impact on me too. It was his ability to go beyond the trauma and actually see things for what they are. I was amazed how he talked about being in a Nazi concentration camp and finding beauty in a sunset or being able to find joy by making a joke with somebody else or even having some sense of entertainment in there. That really put things in perspective for me. I found myself complaining a lot less about things in my life. It also made me think, ‘If he can find meaning and purpose in those circumstance then it allows other people to find meaning and purpose in whatever they are going through as well.’
Sue: Yes, absolutely. And, I am very aware that my meaning and purpose will be different from yours or Joe Bloggs down the road. We have to find our own meaning and purpose. Who comes to mind right now is Nelson Mandela. He completely transformed his life on Robin Island.
Matt: He described it so powerfully in Long Walk for Freedom when he said he would not have been able to develop this without being in prison. So, even though the circumstances we are going through may be very painful and difficult they can help us develop a concept called post traumatic growth. This is the idea that people can experience growth or benefit by struggling through highly difficult situations. Of course, I’m not encouraging people to seek out trauma or difficult circumstances but if you’re struggling with it, it’s possible to develop some sort of benefit or change in mindset or perspective or gain an appreciation for the value of your life that wouldn’t be possible without those circumstances.
Sue: I never dreamt I would be in prison! Even though it’s a very nice prison and I am happy to be in this particular prison, all of us have been imprisoned in some way. If we can find some gold in this and come out of it in a different way and with greater meaning in our life, how wonderful this would be. But it’s interesting that as we are beginning to come out of Covid other things are kicking off. I am thinking of the riots in the US sparked off by George Floyd being murdered in Minneapolis.
Matt: His family friends have a right to be outraged, angry and sad. It’s a truly a painful experience and this kind of trauma can become very challenging to deal with. But it makes me question how this can be used to create good. Look at people like Martin Luther King and what he was able to accomplish for civil rights. Gandhi was another person who was able to use his outrage against injustice to accomplish justice. So, I think it there’s some value in acknowledging that these people are truly victims and have a right to be outraged so some good can come out of this in the long run.
Sue: Yes, I agree with you. I see this time is an incredible opportunity for humankind to do things differently, but a lot of stuff has to crumble first because, as I see it, the old structures aren’t serving us anymore. It’s certainly not in a place where we can start building up again yet. So how do we support ourselves in the process of disintegration? How do we hold this incredible uncertainly and chaos?
Matt: I think it’s about having conversations about mental health and getting more access to mental health. What I mean by this is making mental health more normal and understandable – destigmatising it so people can develop healthy ways to deal with anger, sadness and trauma without feeling ashamed. That’s one of the hardest and saddest things about working with veterans. These are people who have been in combat and have grown up in an environment which preaches toughness: ‘Don’t be sad, don’t be afraid, don’t be anxious.’ But when they leave the military, they feel so ashamed to have trauma or PTSD. I usually spend the first two sessions letting them know they have nothing to be ashamed of. It takes tremendous strength and courage to acknowledge mental injury.
Sue: Yes, Prince William and Kate are doing a huge amount for mental health in the UK which is helping people to go beyond their shame. We need more people like them, who really understand the stigma of mental health issues.
Matt: Unfortunately, when people go through trauma it’s shame which prevents them from getting mental health help. But this can lead onto drug or alcohol abuse, increased depression, increased isolation and, in some extreme situations, suicide. So mental health treatment literally saves people’s lives because they are less likely to resort to addictions or suicide.
Sue: Before I got help, I thought there was something fundamentally wrong with me – I believed I was broken in some way. But I didn’t want anyone to know about this because I was so deeply ashamed by it. I am hoping this pandemic will bring this kind of core belief to the surface so we can see that we are all in this together. And, there’s no shame in admitting to it.
Matt: Yes, admitting to this allows other people to feel more comfortable with their own experiences of trauma or shame or mental health issues, and, in fact, as I said before, it takes an incredible amount of strength and courage to be able to confront this. So, I also hope that this pandemic is bringing all these issues to the surface so we can all learn to be okay with them.
Sue: In my own experience it took a lot of work to take the charge out of feeling ashamed. Mental health isn’t a quick fix – it’s a life-long project. I think a lot of people don’t understand that.
Matt: Absolutely. It’s not a quick fix. It’s definitely something that we will be working on for the rest of our lives. I used to think that if I studied enough psychology or I got enough therapy, I’d be fixed. I would be like this enlightened peaceful guru who never got sad or angry. But I’ve been studying and practising this for over ten years and I still struggle with anger, anxiety and sadness. But I think this is what mental health can really do – or any sort of personal growth that works for you – it’s about being okay with being not okay. This in itself can lower some of those emotional responses and you can find other healthier ways to deal with some of this pain.
Sue: I’ve struggled with depression all my life. But dealing with my traumas and admitting to my depression really helped me to understand that it isn’t a disgrace. Winston Churchill called his depression his black dog. I love that and use the same metaphor. These days my black dog is asleep at my feet 90-95% of the time although I am on the alert for when he wakes up because I can fall straight down a black hole. But now I know enough about myself to understand that my black dog will go back to sleep again, so it’s about waiting patiently (or not so patiently) for this to happen.
Matt: Yes, it is about learning to be patient with yourself. I remember when I first went to therapy and saying to my therapist, ‘I’m feeling really angry right now – is there something wrong with me because I don’t know why?’ He explained to me that it is perfectly natural and normal for people to feel anger and sadness. ‘Human beings get sad and angry sometimes.’
We get such different messages about some of these painful emotions when we are growing up; it’s like you have to suck it up – ‘Don’t be angry, don’t be sad. Be a good boy. Be a good girl.’ So, when we feel anger or sadness it makes us feel ashamed, or there’s something wrong with us, and then we try to push it away. But this just makes us more angry or sad or shameful. When we start to acknowledge this, we acknowledge that we are human beings and yes, ‘I am going to feel sad and angry.’ It makes processing these emotions so much easier to manage.
Sue: We’re now at a point when we are easing out of lockdown, but I am beginning to recognise the blame game. Blame is being hurled around everywhere, especially politically. But I guess I have been kind of waiting for this to happen.
Matt: Personally, I am finding it frustrating. This pandemic is something that our world – our civilisation – has never seen before. We’ve had plagues before but never at this point in our society with this interconnectedness. Just the economic and social effect on people’s lives – mistakes are going to be made but there’s a value in learning from these mistakes, if we can allow this to happen.
Sue: Trouble is, someone wants to hang someone else up on the cross. Anyone.
Matt: No-one knew how to handle Covid – we have all been feeling our way through it. But politically, you can see how we respond as personality led. For instance, Obama would have dealt with what happened differently from how Trump has. Blame takes a lot of energy away from constructive outlets that we could be putting forward and we’ve got a lot of changing to do across the world in the way humanity hasn’t before. This is a chance to start working together. Separatism still rules, but it’s my prayer that underneath it will bring us together. For example, I am getting emails from people from Australia, the UK and India and all of them end their email by saying, ‘I hope you and your family are staying safe and healthy.’ It’s very touching from a humanities perspective to know, ‘Okay you live in Chicago, and I am going through something similar across the world in India.’ That is rare and unique.
Sue: Yes, that’s the wonderful thing about zoom too. I am experiencing this with the death cafes. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what sex you are or where you come from, you want to join with others to talk about dying and, zip! Everybody is saying the same things! It is so uniting. We really need this because, apart from Covid, we are globally facing climate change right now.
Matt: Clients do mention this and how the media and politicians are not helping with this. That’s raising fear and anxiety for a lot of people. You certainly hear people talk about how climate change is one of the biggest existential threats to our civilisation. Again, it motivates me to have a greater appreciation for the natural world and it makes me think about what kind of positive response I can do to make a positive impact. I know when President Obama was in office, they did talk about climate change much more. You still do hear about it but it’s not as emphasised as it was four or five years ago.
Sue: Well, we’re going to have to take it seriously, because it’s coming to get us!
Matt: Yes, you just notice the volatility of the weather. It’s hugely changed. But at the moment everything is focused on Covid and its fallout.
Dr. Welsh is offering a free life coaching session to my blog subscribers. If you are interested, you can email him at Editor@SpiritualMediaBlog.com with ‘Life Coaching’ in the subject line.