What is Cultural PTSD?

The Short Answer

Cultural PTSD theory says that on a cultural level we are thinking and behaving in many important ways like people with PTSD think and behave. That is not to say that we have all been exposed to trauma or are having our own individual experiences with PTSD.  What the theory says is: 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.

The theory explains how power and control needs become more important in the aftermath of trauma (for virtually all survivors), and how that then can become problematic, both for individuals and in larger cultural contexts.

The most important implications of the theory are how cultural expressions of power (brought on by typical trauma based reactions writ large) have led to things like empire building, colonization, oppression of various groups, and several more issues.

The theory has six main points.

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

All of the articles beyond the condensed summary that are available on this website are draft versions of sections in the full book. Many have already been substantially revised for the book.

**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 the many trauma based reactions embedded in our cultural norms in concrete terms as transmissions of cultural norms and values, rather than solely as issues of spiritual illness in need of healing.