Cultural PTSD, The Super Condensed Version

This article is a very brief introduction to the theory of Cultural PTSD.  The upcoming book, Cultural PTSD, The Impact of Humanity’s Trauma Filled History, more fully explains and supports the theory. My hope is that this article will encourage readers to seek the book out in order to fully delve into the theory.  It is my belief that seeing our many social problems from a trauma informed perspective will help us understand how inter-related our social problems really are.  Cultural PTSD Theory says most social problems are not separate issues, but rather a cluster of symptoms all arising from a common root issue. 

The theory of Cultural PTSD is meant to address general cultural norms writ large- that is, those under which we all are familiar with as citizens of Western cultures. It says we have cultural norms that encourage us to think and behave in ways that are similar to how 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 bouts of PTSD.

Rather, the theory shows how many of our major cultural norms, values, and assumptions are similar to those of people who have PTSD. And because these PTSD like responses are at the cultural level, we are all affected by those cultural norms, values, and assumptions, regardless of our personal histories.

There are four major points to the theory of Cultural PTSD, and two more about recovery from the problem. They are:

  1. Human history abounds with trauma.
  2. The (enormous) extent of impact from these traumas on our cultural norms is not currently recognized.
  3. We have cultural level symptoms very similar to those found in individuals with PTSD (and many are directly related to power and control issues).
  4. PTSD does not occur in everyone who suffers through trauma, but when it does occur, it seriously impairs people-by definition. Similarly, in cultures where they do occur, cultural norms born of trauma symptoms also can and do very seriously impair us at cultural levels.
  5. PTSD is treatable. Cultural PTSD symptoms are treatable as well, once recognized as such.
  6. We need to recognize our cultural symptoms and and treat ourselves at the cultural levels.

This page expands on these points a little bit.

There are also several dynamics -related to power- that help further explain the theory.

Power and Control Are Normal Needs

Woven throughout the theory -and central to it-is the notion of power and control.   How humans acquire, use, and respond to power has been at the heart of many western sociological, anthropological and psychological theories.  Indeed, having some sense of power and control is a basic human need, and negotiating power in one way or another is a central task in life, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. In folks with PTSD, power and control needs are typically larger than they are in the general population. Here’s why:

Trauma Is About Loss of Control

In the aftermath of trauma, power and control issues often become central to people- for very understandable reasons. Not only does personal power and control vanish during traumatic events, but the traumatic events themselves tell us that really, really bad things can and do happen when people do not have power and control.

A compelling argument can be made that the primary focus and need people have after experiencing trauma is an overriding need to try to regain power and control – by any means available.  When things go well with recovery, we regain a healthy sense of control and power, but often we get stuck.

As a result, power and control issues are very common for people with trauma in their histories.

Trauma Leaves Us Uneasy with Vulnerability

Understandably, knowing that really bad things can happen when we don’t have control often makes us pretty unwilling to allow ourselves to become vulnerable. Unwillingness to be vulnerable in the immediate aftermath of trauma is a normal reaction, but it needs to fade with time.  I’ll explain why in just a minute. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.  Not only is the road to vulnerability rocky under the best of circumstances, but up until very recently, showing vulnerability in most Western cultures has been actively discouraged, and especially discouraged for males.  That fact has deep implications for the whole of Western culture.

We Need To Be Vulnerable To Be Life Affirming

Several essential life affirming qualities require some level of vulnerability to be present. When carefully deconstructed, it becomes absolutely clear that a certain amount of vulnerability is always present when people experience and express qualities of compassion, generosity, trust towards others, and collaboration.  A lack of ability or willingness to be vulnerable leads to real difficulty in experiencing those emotions, and they become undervalued in individuals and eventually in the culture at large. Personal quests for power and control tend to produce emotions such as aggression and competitiveness, and these in turn become more valued in the culture at large. And what kinds of emotional states do and do not become valued in the larger culture has huge impacts on how that culture will tend to function.

Any “Threat” of a Loss Of Power Gets Confused With Survival Needs

It really cannot be overstated: when we (as humans) sense (wrongly or rightly) that we may lose personal power and control, we act in primitive, and survival based ways.  Humans (all of us, not just “they”) get defensive, really primitive, and reactive.  In the face of even small to moderate amounts of uncertainty, much less traumatic circumstances, I would argue we usually react with our survival instincts driving us, not other modes of reasoning.  We especially do so when we are unconsciously triggered or mostly unaware that we are somehow fearing a loss of power.  As humans, if we are not sure where or what the “threat” is exactly, we tend to over react to everything.  It takes a lot of practice for most of us to not go directly into survival mode. 

In survival mode, no humans (none, nada, zip, zero) are focused on fairness, the rights of others, or on long term strategies. We are focused on survival; we get primitive, defensive, crazy even. We also get extraordinarily self absorbed, and can find ways to rationalize terrible behaviors with relative ease. 

Oppression As Normal Power And Control Needs Gone Awry

Behavioral health clinicians know power and control needs are almost always skewed in people with (active) PTSD. And we find correlations to this at the cultural level. At the cultural level, discrimination and oppression are obsessive and desperate attempts to consolidate power and control for some. Western history is chock full of examples where obsessive quests for consolidation of power have led to to horrific outcomes for entire groups of people. Colonialism, racism, religious fervor and persecution, sexism, homophobia, class and economic inequities are some of the most common ways some people have tried to consolidate power historically, and currently.  We are most definitely still reeling from those effects.

The theory of Cultural PTSD hypothesizes that many of these immensely dysfunctional cultural norms originally formed from assumptions, behaviors and beliefs of people who were simply attempting to deal with trauma in their lives and communities in the best ways they could.  This theory is in no way an excuse for any egregious actions, but it is instead an explanatory theory pointing to certain conditions that allowed and even encouraged oppressive beliefs and actions. The legacies of these conditions are still stunting us all in the present.

In other words, the theory links very common and -typical- trauma based reactions seen in individuals to cultural level beliefs. These cultural level beliefs, assumptions and norms then often serve to allow or even encourage discrimination, oppression, imperialism, empire building, and to see those things as acceptable and normal. The theory notes the many ways that dynamics like xenophobia and ethnocentrism, and the actions of things like discrimination, oppression, empire building, are strikingly similar to the fear based beliefs individuals hold and the actions they take when they are in the grips of unprocessed trauma based reactions.

Our Cultural Level Problems Are About Power And Control

Think about any or all of “hot button” social issues. They boil down to disagreements over the use of power and control. Who gets to determine the proper amount of control over environmental regulations, tax policies, abortion, gun control, labor rights, corporate and small business hiring practices, military funding, and the like often get quite polarized and emotional.  Cultural PTSD Theory says this polarization is precisely because they are, at their cores, always about power and control, but in political discussion we are not fully conscious of that, and so become triggered and defensive.

Limbic Systems Triggered by Cultural Contexts 

We’ve learned a lot about “fight or flight” reactions to fear and the roles our limbic systems and amygdalae play in making us worried and more susceptible to fear mongering.  We also know some people do, quite frankly, use fear mongering to persuade people about certain ideas.

Cultural PTSD Theory shines light on our cultural tendencies to conceive of “fight” actions such as aggression, oppression and other forms of violence as “normal”, if not desirable. The theory also serves to remind us that people with active PTSD often see their own symptoms as “normal,” until they begin to recover from the PTSD.

Cultural Level Mindfulness for the Anthropocene

In these early years of the Anthropocene, we are in the midst of really learning how to apply metacognition or insight oriented thinking to our cultural lives. We are beginning to become mindful at the cultural level. In the past few decades, we’ve made amazing advances in becoming more culturally insightful. We have become collectively more aware of how we think about and treat numerous groups at the cultural level. This includes seeking justice and acceptance for groups oppressed by traditional socio economic factors such as race and gender, and also includes a broadened recognition for how our cultural assumptions have made it easy to construct (erroneous) beliefs that apparently some still believe to be “the natural order of things.”

But we are, as a species, still in the beginning stages of learning how to actively deconstruct our cultural contexts, and we often still mistake cultural norms for human nature, especially when we examine issues related to power. For example, in many parts of the wider culture qualities such as a propensity for violence, greed and extreme self interest are blithely assumed to be “human nature.” Meanwhile, the qualities of compassion, cooperation, and relational caring (which actually do ensure the survival of the species by allowing children to survive into adulthood) are barely noticed as existing by many of those same folks.

Cultural PTSD is an important next step in the recognition of how our cultural assumptions and norms are skewed in certain ways.  The theory helps us understand how profoundly both our personal and political levels of life are affected by these cultural level dynamics.

We have tended to conceive of and address many social level problems as separate problems. Cultural PTSD theory says that the majority of these problems can be better understood as inter-related symptoms born of unprocessed trauma reactions that have been codified into cultural norms and assumptions that we all live among.

Conclusion And Evolution

The strategies of trying to consolidate ‘power over’ and the accumulation of wealth (as proxy for power) at the expense of others are strategies that are most definitely rooted in survival, and appear to be quite likely due dynamics born from fear based thinking and based in trauma.  While we have survived as a species by using these strategies widely, many of us have become quite aware that these strategies are -at the very least- greatly hindering us in the Anthropocene. At worst these strategies will continue to do the kinds of things they have done historically:  directly led to the deaths of millions through incredibly callous acts such as genocide, slavery, wild inequities with regard to access to resources like food, water, healthcare and education.These atrocities will only continue if we remain as blind as we have been to their true roots. 

Trauma by definition changes how people see the world and approach life.  Humans have suffered through immense amounts of trauma.  As a result, it makes sense that we developed some cultural norms that were born directly from fear and trauma symptoms, but unrecognized as such. And, as those norms endured they became incredibly dysfunctional by creating systems of oppression, inequity and a callousness to the plight of others. These symptoms/norms have led to unnecessary suffering for all of us. When individuals recover from trauma, it changes their lives, and indeed saves lives.  The same is true of changes in cultural level norms, values, and assumptions. 

We need to become more aware of these cultural level dynamics, and more nimble in our collective abilities to change from these old fear based and survival oriented strategies, to more proactive, collaborative and compassion based strategies, policies and actions in order to navigate the Anthropocene successfully.