Avoidance is a key component in PTSD and in Cultural PTSD. What most people don’t realize about PTSD is how large of a role avoidance plays in it, and even in possibly producing it in the first place.

An entire category of symptoms of PTSD revolve around avoiding the subject of trauma. In other words, in order to be diagnosed with PTSD, people have to show some symptoms of avoidance about trauma. Really!

Even people who do not have “full” PTSD, but have unresolved trauma will routinely go to great lengths to construct stories of their lives that avoid much -or any- emphasis on trauma.

Why? Because really facing traumatic memories is incredibly painful! It’s honestly about that simple.

Seriously, ask any MH professional how often people with trauma -sometimes even extensive trauma- in their backgrounds will flat out deny they have experienced any trauma at all. As someone who has worked with thousands of people in a MH role, I can attest, it is 1) simply mind blowing how thoroughly people will deny that they’ve experienced trauma, 2) that even if they don’t deny it, people will routinely downplay trauma at first, and, 3) this tendency to avoid by denying or greatly minimizing happens pretty routinely.

Why would we expect this to be different at the cultural level?

Cultural Levels of Denial

I originally wrote this in 2017 or so, and sitting here revising it in Feb of 2022, it is clear that the efforts by some to deny reality have intensified to a truly fevered pitch. Some people are intent upon trying to downplay and deny history. This much is clear.

Most people are desperately trying to protect themselves when they refuse to look at the impact of trauma in their individual lives.  This strategy of suppression and denial is also found across many cultures. In either case, it virtually always ends up being quite maladaptive to stay in avoidance, and not resolve trauma.

The fact is that dealing directly with trauma is very frightening and painful.  So people will (mostly not consciously) come up with strategies to “bury the past.” It is easy to see a similar dynamic can and still does happen on the cultural level as well.

And, because there seems to be a combination of some people cynically using this as an excuse to deny history and a few folks truly believing the more inclusive versions of history are “wrong,” I think it would behoove us to consider avoidance in combination with other general mindset level issues that people tend to hold. See here. Regardless:

Up until the past few decades, mainstream history -was- almost fully blind to its numerous cultural biases.  Mainstream historians routinely constructed stories that created heroes out of oppressors, and failed to acknowledge or explore the traumatic fallout from the oppressive behaviors of colonizers. History routinely failed to examine how folks who experienced discrimination experienced life, or were treated. 

Up until very recent decades it was perfectly acceptable to portray colonizers and conquerors as supremely heroic and righteous peoples.  Various social movements have begun to help us develop other -badly needed- perspectives that show colonizers and conquerors in less flattering light and as significantly more barbaric than they’ve been previously portrayed. 

Certain groups in cultures will try to erase traumatic parts of their histories for a variety of reasons, but they all do so by minimizing or sanitizing what really happened to people.  A common way to do this is victim blaming by engaging in intentional bigotry- demonizing and casting blame on others unfairly. These kinds of strategies DO NOT work in the long term, either in individuals or in the larger cultural contexts. 

First Step To Recovery

It’s a cliche to say that the first step to solving any problem is recognizing it is a problem, but it is also absolutely true. One cannot recover from PTSD as an individual by continuing to avoid the illness or the causes of the illness. So a first step is acceptance that bad stuff happened. And that, again, is really painful. So even though it is a simple step, it’s not an easy one. In many ways, it’s like jumping from a high diving board.

Cultural PTSD says: When we look -critically- at our cultural histories, one of the first things we can’t help but notice is the extent of the trauma, and then in Western cultures: the extent of the violence we’ve perpetrated on each other and Others. The degree of past and current violence in human history has produced an incredible amount of trauma. This, in and of itself is incredibly painful to acknowledge. But it is only by facing reality that we can really even start to repair dysfunctions, and create norms and values that are healthier for us all.

Getting To Honesty Takes Real Courage

So recognition that trauma is contributing to our current problems is key, but avoidance or denial of it is also….a symptom of the PTSD.

What that means is: avoidance and denial is an integral part of our problem. It’s the inability to see how trauma based reactions and decision making have contributed to our problems that is probably the largest stumbling block in resolving or mitigating the cultural level problems we face as a species.

(And again, here I am in 2022, re-reading and thinking: Yup, you were correct, the avoidance is a huge stumbling block).

The problem is so large that in earlier drafts of my outline for this theory I wrote this:

1. Humans have endured a tremendous amount of trauma as a species.

2. The extent and impact of this trauma is not recognized at all in our cultural level thinking.

3. Trauma can and does by its nature produce altered ways of perceiving in individuals and in groups (fear based thinking prevails: the world becomes divided into safe and unsafe, quests for power become outsized).

4. As a species we are acting in ways that very closely resemble how people with PTSD act. Many of our cultural norms also mirror how people with PTSD think and act (arms races, building walls, xenophobia, people doubling down on racism, sexism and homophobia, reckless acting out, etc.).

5. We need to recognize this and begin to treat ourselves as trauma survivors recovering from cultural level PTSD.

6. Some people (caught up in avoidance symptoms and denial) will not be able to understand or accept a word of this.

7. It’s still true anyway.

Addressing Avoidance on a Cultural Level

This is the challenge for us in the 21st century. We need to figure out how to more skillfully address the avoidance and defensiveness of those who want to stay in avoidance. We need to really recognize that these people may very well be in full clinical level denial about a variety of political issues.

In working with individuals, a helper gains trust and works to respect the boundaries of the individual at hand, but on a collective level, it’s unclear (to me) how to get this to work (at this point), except by somehow encouraging folks to really consider what kind of mindset they want for themselves and think is appropriate for the 21st century. This might be a good avenue for peace activists to consider more carefully.

Certainly truth and reconciliation strategies have worked in other parts of the world, but those are usually employed -after- atrocities have ended, and the worst of the offenders have been held accountable. That’s the equivalent of an individual with PTSD really acting out in a terrible way to blow up his life, and then, once he is cooling off in jail, he can finally find a way to becoming open to getting help. I want us to stop the escalation of those who have or will become violent authoritarians NOW, before even more terrible things happen.