Cultural PTSD, The Super Condensed Version

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. The theory says that in many ways, we are collectively thinking and behaving in modes that are quite 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 experiences with PTSD.

Rather, the theory illuminates ways that 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.
  4. PTSD seriously impairs people-by definition. Cultural norms born of trauma symptoms 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. 

Before going into these points in a little more detail, there are several dynamics that are crucial to help further explain the theory.

Power and Control Are Normal (and Crucial) Needs

Woven throughout the theory -and central to it-is the notion of power and its ubiquitousness in our lives.   How humans acquire, use, and respond to power has been at the heart of many Western sociological, anthropological and psychological theories.  Indeed, having a sense of power and control is a basic human need, and negotiating power in one way or another is a central task we are almost constantly engaged in, whether we are consciously aware of it in our day to day lives or not.

Power and control issues trigger people on deeply emotional levels-as human beings.  This fact cannot be overstated and is enormously important. Indeed, it appears that power and control issues often get conflated with survival issues in some parts of our consciousnesses, and as biological beings, survival (by any means necessary) is our most basic instinct.  Power and control issues are also especially salient when people have trauma in their histories. 

Our Cultural Level Problems Are About Power And Control

Think about any or all  “hot button” social issues. At their cores, 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 proposes this is because they are, at their cores, about power and control.

Trauma Is About Loss of Control

In PTSD, 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 very first need people have after trauma is an overriding need to try to regain a sense of 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 issues for people who have 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 many Western cultures has been actively discouraged (especially for males).  That fact has deep implications for the whole of Western culture, because vulnerability is needed to experience other emotions.

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 engage in and experience compassion, generosity, trust towards others, and collaboration. When the larger culture encourages a lack of skill, ability or willingness to be vulnerable, it leads to real difficulty in experiencing those life affirming emotions, so they become under-utilized and undervalued.

At the same time, trauma induced quests for power and control tend to produce emotions such as aggression, suspicion, and competitiveness.  These perspectives become normalized in the culture at large. Indeed, entire systems of discrimination, empire building, and hyper-competititon have been build around them. 

Oppression As Normal Power And Control Needs Gone Awry

Behavioral health clinicians know power and control needs are often (and indeed, usually) skewed in people with PTSD.  When dealing with individuals who appear to have outsized power and control needs, all of the competent clinicians I know will immediately assess for past trauma in the person’s history.  At the cultural level, Western history is chock full of examples where obsessive quests for consolidation of power led to the oppression, enslavement, and even genocide of entire groups of people.  

The Theory of Cultural PTSD hypothesizes that many of these extremely 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, given their times and the resources available to them.  This theory is in no way an excuse for the egregious actions, but it is instead an explanatory theory pointing to certain conditions that produced oppressive beliefs and actions that are still stunting us all into the present.

In other words, the theory links typical trauma based reactions to beliefs that served to allow discrimination, oppression, imperialism, empire building, to become accepted and normalized. It will show 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. 

Limbic Systems Triggered by Cultural Contexts 

Many writers and thought leaders link current cultural malaises to a culture filled with violence, economic insecurity, and very real and pressing environmental issues.  We’ve learned a lot about the roles our limbic systems and amygdalae play in making us worried and in making us generally more susceptible to fear mongering.  

Cultural PTSD helps further explain the hyper focus and ease by which our fight, freeze or flight systems are activated, as well as our cultural tendencies to conceive of aggression, oppression and other forms of violence as “normal”, if not desirable.  

With those things in mind, let’s very briefly take a look at the main points of the theory. 

1) Human History Abounds With Trauma 

When we think about the general history of any geographic area, we think in terms of wars, disasters, epidemics, and the like. In other words, we conceptualize history in terms of trauma. 

Traumatic events happened often and routinely:The amount of trauma our ancestors faced is eye-opening in terms of its frequency, amount, and diversity.  Up until recently (and climate change disasters excluded) threats from nature were much less well controlled. Trauma from various weather issues, volcanoes, earthquakes, predators, disease (The Bubonic Plague, for example), and things as routine as childbirth happened on a regular basis. Threats from other humans also loomed large. The historical percentage and sheer numbers of people affected by violence born of war and empire building are simply staggering to consider. 

2) The Extent and Impact of Trauma is Not Recognized on a Cultural Level 

The full theory enumerates eight reasons why we have not previously recognized the strong similarities between typical trauma based reactions and certain cultural norms. In this short introduction, I will only very briefly offer three reasons.  1) Our own cultural constructs are very hard for us to see-and they are hard to see in several ways. We routinely confuse cultural constructs with “human nature”. We get used to the constructs, and confuse our norms or beliefs with facts. 2) There is a natural inclination to avoid thinking about trauma whenever possible. Indeed, the presence of some kind of avoidance symptoms are required for a diagnosis of PTSD in individuals; and 3) until very recently, we have not had many effective interventions for dealing with trauma. 

3) We Have Cultural Level PTSD Symptoms 

Example of Consulting Room Issues:

Let’s say I get a client in my office who literally spends half his family’s “discretionary” money on guns, ammunition, disaster equipment, and security cameras. Additionally, a huge amount his energy is also devoted to keeping his family safe in ways that worry them. He complains of feeling numb, while his wife says he is paranoid and quick to anger.  Based on just these pieces of information, most reasonable clinicians will attempt to find out if he has some unresolved trauma in his background.

The Consulting Room’s Cultural Parallels:

Social Facts: In the U.S., we spend 54 cents out of each Federal Budget “discretionary” dollar on “defense” while kids go hungry, and medical treatment is exorbitantly priced for most people. We also have completely out of control “intelligence” agencies spying on law abiding citizens, and entities on the internet obsessively mining data for consumer information, often without our permission. 

Further, we can blow up the world dozens of times over. We are often completely unable to see people with different ideologies as trustworthy. We behave in ways we know are destroying our planet, compulsively using dirty energy, and depleting resources. According to several sources, fully 67% of workers are disengaged from their jobs, which means the majority of their days are spent numb and unhappy. Many citizens feel terrorized by police, and obvious corruption can be found in many public arenas. Again, these are social facts, not political statements. The corollaries to common PTSD symptoms are there.  We just need to recognize them as such.

Other Cultural Parallel Examples:

*The reckless greed and obsessions with power and control found in big business and politics;

*The incredibly high levels of violence in our entertainment industries; 

*The pervasive and extremely short sighted over emphasis on aggressive military solutions;

*The obsessive quest to build a border wall, such as those built in medieval times; 

*The aggressive xenophobia found in the supporters of the idea to build border walls.

These and other dynamics can be seen as cultural level forms of typical maladaptive trauma based reactions.

Other Psychological Issues with Cultural Parallels

Outsized Power And Control Issues: Fear about any potential loss of power affects us humans on primordial levels. We are often triggered without even recognizing that we have been triggered.  Think about how quickly people get defensive about topics where power inequity is at the core of disagreements: racism, sexism, religion, homophobia, etc.

Inflexible Thinking: Humans resort to Either/Or thinking, also known as inflexible thinking when we are stressed or threatened. This is a physiological fact.  Clearly, our many social issues (which boil down to power) cause us significant amounts of stress at cultural levels.  

Trouble Seeing Others As Equal: When people have significant behavioral health issues, they naturally become more self absorbed. As a result, they often have difficulty fully seeing others as multi dimensional beings with needs and desires as relevant as their own. 

Certainly, empire builders from previous generations had trouble seeing others as fully equal to themselves.  This inability helped spur centuries of relentless militaristic empire building and mostly successful attempts to eradicate or colonize less power obsessed cultures, and have produced complex systems of oppression which have thrived for centuries. 

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.  We are most definitely still experiencing and reeling from those effects.

4) PTSD Seriously Impairs People  

PTSD, by definition, can and does seriously impair people’s abilities to reason, function and cooperate with others at productive levels. Left untreated, PTSD is also a condition which often stays entrenched over time instead of naturally dissipating. There are a wide variety of cultural level parallels that appear to be quite similar to common individual impairments. 

Some Indicators of Cultural Level Impairment:

*A large sense of disconnect and distrust between many groups: workers and management, consumers and corporations, constituents and legislators, etc.

*Scarcity and the need for competition is assumed to be normal, ideal even.  Scarcity and fear based thinking are typical responses seen in PTSD. 

*Paranoia and distrust: Xenophobia can easily be found in certain political leaders in this country.  This produces cultural level polarization and normalizes the use of inflexible thinking, neither of which are psychologically healthy.

*Institutional and often unconscious discrimination still leads to oppression. This is objective fact, and yet denied or trivialized by many.  Trivialization and denial can be seen as 1) avoidance, 2) analogous to the level of rationalization and denial based thinking commonly found in people with PTSD, and 3) a (usually unconscious) tactic to preserve current levels of power and control over others.

* Compassion is devalued. This is seen in the relentless quest for money over the health of the planet and the health of the citizenry. In short it is clear we live within cultural norms that routinely value profit over the compassionate treatment of people and the planet.  This points to a high level of cultural dysfunction.

In contrast the amount of funding given to military spending and law enforcement point to a very skewed sense of danger and clear evidence of fear based thinking, much like people with PTSD commonly show.

* Superstition and victim blaming are still common.  Humans naturally fear being victimized and will do anything to avoid feeling vulnerable after a traumatic event.  Victim blaming is a maladaptive but predictable response to trauma. As humans, we desperately look for ways to avoid trauma from occurring in the future, even at the expense of logic or the rights of others.

* We still resort to force and violence to address what are ultimately social problems.  The use of these measures is the equivalent of resolving inter-personal issues with violence.

(5) PTSD Of Any Kind Is Treatable 

Currently we are learning more and more about the effects of trauma, and we are getting better and better at treating it.  Evidence Based Practices for PTSD exist and are getting more and more robust and effective every day. Additionally, Trauma Informed Care principles (which recognize and address how “standard” agency policies can be re traumatizing to those with trauma in their histories) are already spreading through various fields.  

6) We Need to Treat Ourselves For Cultural PTSD

Trauma symptoms are common to see in therapy, and we need to address them as such in order to produce good outcomes.  If behavorial health clinicians try to work with clients on issues like numbness, anxiety, and controlling behaviors without ever linking them back to traumas that originally triggered them, the results are likely to be less than robust. The same is true of our cultural level dysfunctions, discomforts, and pain points.  

Awareness is the first step in treatment for any problem in any realm. Insight and education help immensely. Recognizing our problems for what they truly are, and where they truly come from is key to start really resolving our Cultural PTSD.

Adaptation of Trauma Informed Care (TIC) and Evidence Based Practices are strong starting points.  Additionally, focusing on and implementing compassion based strategies is essential to fully recover from our cultural level dysfunctions. We also need to create Trauma Informed Care policies. The book makes several suggestions for how to effectively expand on TIC principles to successfully apply them to the cultural level and to policy making.

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. In other words, we are beginning to become mindful at the cultural level. In the past few decades, we’ve made amazing advances in this.  This includes awareness of and seeking justice for groups oppressed by traditional socio economic factors such as race and gender. It includes understanding more clearly how our behaviors impact the environment.  But we are, as a species, still learning how to actively becomes more mindful and deconstruct our cultural contexts. So we are still struggling with our levels of awareness about how cultural constructs have created dynamics that have affected all of us (not just these groups).

Cultural PTSD is an important next step in the recognition of how our cultural 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 responses that have been codified into cultural norms and assumptions that we all live among.  

Conclusion And Evolution

The strategy of consolidating power over others (in a variety of ways) is a strategy most definitely rooted in survival.  While we have survived as a species, the majority of us have become quite aware that the strategies of hyper competition, oppressive uses of power and consolidation of wealth are hindering us, and driving down the quality of life for literally billions of people. 

We need to become more aware of the cultural blinders we are still clinging to, and that their origins are profoundly rooted in (fear based) thinking born of trauma based reactions. Only when awareness of this aspect becomes more commonplace, we will really be able to become 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.  And when that happens, we will be able to navigate towards the ideals of peace, security and prosperity for all in this Anthropocene with much more ease and success.