According to horticultural and environmental science, trees that shed their leaves in the fall do so in order to survive upcoming harsh weather. Trees go through the process of abscission as a way to conserve the water and energy that will be necessary to survive through the coming winter months. This process is often regarded as of one of nature’s most beautiful things that humans can observe but, at its core, it is simply about survival. These plants and trees that change colors and shed their leaves are doing so because, if they don’t, they will die.
And don’t some people do the same thing? Wouldn’t you expect people, particularly children, to try and close themselves off if they felt that they were going to be in danger? Evidence seems to support the idea that people tend to close themselves off after experiencing a trauma and it seems reasonable to assume that they would do so in an attempt to prevent further harm. So, just like those trees, they cut off connections and relationships that might otherwise provide the social and emotional support they need.
But, let’s be honest, every step of the process isn’t pretty. Once the trees have lost their leaves, they look barren and a little sad and we wait impatiently for everything to bloom once again. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness, 5th edition (DSM-5) lists “negative alterations in cognitions and mood” as a diagnostic criterion for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in both adults and in children. Those “alterations” can come in the form of anger outbursts, social withdrawal, persistent feelings of fear or guilt, just to name a few. And it’s uncomfortable to address. People who have separated themselves from others, who have withdrawn from all different types of relationships, are seen as moody and irrational and they are often told that they need to “just get over it” and to “move on”.
But that’s not they way it works. We can’t push people into wellness any more than we can talk a tree into growing leaves. There is a lot that goes into coping with harsh and chaotic environments, not to mention recovering from them. And what is most amazing is that a lot of that coping and recovery takes place beneath the surface.
Trees build for themselves a root system that, while mostly dormant during the winter, remain at the ready to resume growing once warmer weather arrives. And just as those roots provide the stability and support needed for those trees to survive the harsher weather, so too do people require a support network and will remain constant through difficult and stressful times.
And, yes, it’s stressful for everyone. Unfortunately, unlike with trees, there isn’t a Farmer’s Almanac to tell us when to expect warmer weather or when things will begin blooming. However, the needs don’t change—people still need the love and support of their friends and family no matter how long it takes for them to recover. And just because it may not be readily apparent, that love and support are what allow for growth and healing.