Cultural PTSD, The Super Condensed Version

This article is a brief introduction to the theory of Cultural PTSD.  It is my belief that many of our most serious social problems are quite interrelated. Specifically they are all different ways maladaptive forms of power (power over) others have manifested.

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 is not saying that we have all been exposed to trauma, or are having our own individual bouts of PTSD.

However, the theory illustrates that many major cultural norms, values, and assumptions -especially those related to power- are similar to those seen in people who have PTSD. PTSD in individuals is a serious illness that distorts and diminishes the quality of life for all that are affected by it. It is not a healthy way to live. Cultural PTSD theory say that because we have these -cultural level- norms, values, and assumptions that very much resemble PTSD symptoms, we are all likely to be quite negatively 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 people living within these cultures.

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 people more willing to embrace hyper-competitiveness and aggressiveness to achieve that power and control. and those state in turn become more valued and common in the culture at large. And in any culture: the varied kinds of emotional states that are (or are not) common and valued in the larger culture will have 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 selfish, reactive, and survival based ways.  Humans (all of us, not just “them”) get defensive, really selfish, and reactive if we feel threatened (again, rightly or wrongly). 

In the face of even small to moderate amounts of uncertainty, much less traumatic circumstances, I would argue we often 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, many of us will 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 reactive, 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.

The theory notes the many ways that dynamics like xenophobia and ethnocentrism, and the actions of things like discrimination, oppression, empire building (at the expense of others), and other coercive ways of behaving 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. And quite obviously, some groups of people are still perpetrating these acts on others.

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.

Our Cultural Level Problems Are About Power And Control

Think about any or all of “hot button” social issues. They boil down to (truly profound) disagreements over the use of power and control. Who gets to determine environmental regulations, tax policies, abortion, gun control, labor rights, corporate and small business hiring practices, military funding, and the like often devolve into acts of true deception, and deceit and coercion.  Cultural PTSD Theory says these dysfunctional ways of acting arise -because- some will attempt by some to use coercive forms of power and control, in fairly desperate attempts to consolidate power OVER others, rather than share power with others.

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 some apparently 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 helps us take the important steps of 1) recognizing that cultural assumptions will always exist and 2) help us see how these assumptions 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 mostly separate problems. Cultural PTSD theory says that the majority of these problems can be better understood as inter-related symptoms born of maladaptive ways of wielding power that have been codified into cultural norms and assumptions that we all live among.

Conclusion And Evolution

When people come to -really- understand why they act in certain ways, they generally choose to find healthy (or at least not harmful) ways to act. But there are often barriers that keep people from understanding much about their own real motivations. 

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 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 in order to navigate the Anthropocene successfully.

That means we need to be able to recognize differences in how power is conceptualized, and find ways to shift from “power over” type leaders, institutions, and assumptions (which always rely on coercion at some levels) to healthier forms of “power with” leaders, institutions, and assumptions.

*By “we” I am generally referring to folks who live in very Westernized cultures, with my main reference being the US, where I have lived almost all of my life. Whenever anyone talks in terms of cultural norms for millions of people, they will be talking in terms of generalities and there will always be exceptions, and differences among subgroups within those millions of people. The applicability of any large systemic theory will vary a bit from place to place, over time and within subgroups.