What is Cultural PTSD Theory?

The Short Answer

Cultural PTSD theory is a deep dive into notions of “power over.” Cultural PTSD states that

1) Power and control issues have been overly valued and overly emphasized in most Western cultures,

2) And this over valuing of power leads to many problems because of the dysfunctional forms of power some people become willing to resort to.

I want to note right away here, that this theory does not in any way -replace or try to deny- critiques of capitalism, racism, sexism, colonialism, etc. Quite the opposite. The theory complements and is very much in alignment with -all- these critiques. Indeed, the harms done to people (and the planet) by all the ‘isms” are all maladaptive pursuits by some to consolidate “power over” others. The theory does step back from the specifics of each aspect though, and try to explore

3) Why power related issues have risen to such importance, and

4)  Additional reasons why these dysfunctional expressions of power keep recurring within so many Western cultures (despite millions of us recognizing how clearly detrimental some of them are).

Okay, What Does That Have To Do With PTSD?

In PTSD, power and control needs become more important in the aftermath of trauma (for virtually all survivors). It is a core issue of what people with PTSD struggle with.

Cultural PTSD theory says that many general Western cultural norms, values, and assumptions appear to be quite similar to issues people with PTSD typically struggle with. And because these are cultural level norms, values and assumptions, we are all affected by them.

This is not saying we are all having individual bouts of PTSD. Rather, it is saying that we all exist within cultures that have (clearly) maladaptive norms about power and control, and those norms closely resemble assumptions, values and behaviors that are typically seen in people with PTSD. 

The theory explains how power and control needs often become problematic (in many ways) for individuals with PTSD, and how that dynamic appears to have close parallels in our larger cultural contexts.

The most important implications of the theory are that:  1) cultural level over valuation and obsessions with  “power over” have occurred, and 2) led to things like empire building, colonization, oppression of various groups, and several more issues.

By using PTSD to illustrate some close parallels in cultural norms and assumptions, I am in no way trying to pathologize individuals with PTSD. People with PTSD are -without exception- as responsible for developing their disorders as a person who is hit by a drunk driver and suffers from a broken leg that doesn’t heal properly- that is: not at all. Individuals with PTSD are people who have suffered traumas, and now are faced with obstacles that others don’t have to negotiate.

At the cultural level, it’s a bit different. Obviously there -are- some intentional bad actors who choose to try to keep perpetuating unhealthy cultural norms, values and assumptions for their own benefits. But the majority of us living within sick cultural norms are also pretty much victims of circumstances.  We are all born into cultures we didn’t choose. We don’t choose to grow up in these cultures, and we don’t choose to be surrounded by them. That we develop implicit biases from exposure to some values and assumptions is close to inevitable.

But by more consciously recognizing that we are living within cultures with norms about power that hold us -all- back from being healthier, we can learn ways to transcend and change them more easily.

Here is an article that summarizes the theory.  A full book, Cultural PTSD, The Impact of Humanity’s Trauma Filled History, is planned at some point.

This is a work in progress. Many articles on this site have already been substantially revised, and will likely change again in attempts to further refine the theory.

**If you are well versed in trauma issues, I want to note that this theory shares many similarities with intergenerational or trans-generational trauma. The main differences are 1) it is about general Western norms, values and assumptions (rather than specific groups living within the larger culture). And 2) the analysis also goes beyond typical trauma informed ideas, by explicitly linking several common cultural issues: such as greed, various forms of oppression, and the limited ways people conceive of power to unprocessed (and problematic), trauma based reactions.

This theory also differs (fairly significantly) from current conceptions of “Collective Trauma” in that it is not couched in spiritual terms.  Historical analysis clearly shows many concrete ways that Cultural PTSD has arisen from and grown into specific and identifiable cultural norms, assumptions and values.  While I share many sympathies with those who are torchbearers for spiritually based ideas about “collective trauma,” I don’t think the ideas go far enough, or get concrete enough.

Cultural PTSD theory recognizes and understands that dynamics that very closely resemble trauma based reactions are embedded in our cultural norms in concrete forms. They are transmissions of (dysfunctional) cultural norms and values, and should be addressed as such, rather than solely issues of spiritual illness in need of healing. Addressing collective trauma in spiritual terms is probably a necessary, but not sufficient way of addressing the cultural norms that are causing us all such collective unease.