Because of past traumas, we have developed cultural norms born of trauma based decision making which are completely unrecognized as such.
When we objectively look at some of our cultural norms and compare them with responses that are common to trauma survivors who have symptoms of PTSD, the conclusion that we have cultural level trauma dysfunctions or Cultural PTSD is almost inevitable.
So let’s say I’m in private practice doing counseling. I get a client in my office who literally spends half his family’s money on guns, ammo, disaster equipment and security cameras. Additionally, a huge amount his energy is also devoted to keeping his family safe, he is sometimes moderately and other times rabidly paranoid of anyone that doesn’t look like him, and extremely defensive about his acquisition of guns. He also monitors his entire family’s every move. He has outsized fears that everyone is out to try to cheat him. His family complains that he is always tense and that they no longer get along. He is quick to anger and quick to become suspicious and he recklessly endangers people when he is angry. He also complains that he goes through most of the day feeling numb.
Unless I am seriously incompetent, I’m going to make note of all of those things, and attempt to find out if he has some unresolved trauma in his background.
On a cultural level: In the U.S., we spend 54 cents out of each Federal Budget dollar on “defense” while kids go hungry, and medical treatment is exorbitantly priced for most people. We also have completely out of control “intelligence surveillance” agencies spying on law abiding citizens. We can blow up the world dozens of times over. We are unable to see people with different ideologies as trustworthy. We behave in ways we know destroy our planet, compulsively using dirty energy, and depleting resources. According to several sources, fully 70% of workers are disengaged from their jobs, which means they are numb and unhappy at work, just dying to get to the weekend. We “elect” and then tolerate leaders who are reckless, corrupt and incompetent. Many citizens feel terrorized by police, and corruption is on the rise. These are facts.
The corollaries are obviously there- we just need to recognize them.
Common Symptom: Hypervigilance
A common symptom of PTSD in individuals is called hyper vigilance. This is when people are super anxious and easily startled by small changes. People in a state of hyper vigilance are on high alert for danger- often not even consciously. People will obsessively and relentlessly scan their environments for danger.Here are some ways hypervigilance has corollaries that are manifested on a cultural level.
The current over zealousness of our various so called intelligence agencies are symptoms of hypervigilance. The NSA collects data on peaceful law abiding citizens in a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment. The PATRIOT Act was and still is a gross invasion of privacy rammed through as law in the aftermath of 9/11. There are currently secret laws that allow for secret investigations of law abiding citizens. These current day agencies are wildly obsessed with remaining in control, just like the Stasi, KGB and any other “secret police” organizations that have plagued cultures for millennia. This is hyper vigilance and desire for control on a culture wide scale.
Our news cycles endlessly feeding us stories of horror and making the world appear to be a danger our place where people can’t be trusted.
Related to hyper vigilance: a sense that the world is a dangerous place. We see corollaries in the “entertainment” industry as show after show involves killing after killing. Car explosions zombie attacks, deviously sadistic serial killers and rapes are commonplace and a given. Our entertainment worlds are full of messages that there is danger everywhere.
Our obsessional focus on self protection. We guard ourselves zealously against the small threat of theft or harm, we zealously lock our doors, cover our shades, don’t look strangers in the eyes. Some might argue that those things are necessary in certain circumstances. And I would agree, but the extent to which people do these things is in many cases not called for.
Common Symptom: Distrust
A general state of distrust is common to people suffering from PTSD. Humans need to feel they have some control over their lives. However, normal control needs get amplified to ridiculous proportions when trauma and fear based decision making are driving the individual. In PTSD we see people become convinced their neighbors can’t be trusted, they obsess that others are out to cheat them. Distrust triggers our control needs and vice versa.
At the cultural level, xenophobia of any kind is by definition a distrust of others. And oppression is a way to exert control. They go hand in hand.
When we encounter others who we do not perceive of as being part of our group, we can choose to be curious and open towards learning about them or we can become fearful and/or judgmental. Think of the knee jerk racist reactions (thankfully a bit less common today) towards gays and POC. How automatic the impulse has been to be suspicious and want to oppress by denigrating. These are almost identical to reactions typical of people suffering with PTSD symptoms- they become suspicious of people, and fearful, wanting to control -or avoid if possible- those they think they cannot trust.
Back to our client: So, let’s say he does confirm that he has a personal history with trauma. What do I do next? Ignore it? Of course not! In order to be a competent practitioner, I am ethically bound to -carefully- bring up the concept that some unprocessed trauma may be at the root of why he is so distrustful and suspicious. As our client is exposed to the idea that there are possible connections between trauma and dysfunctional behaviors, we can educate him more. We can also educate him about the common symptoms of trauma, and ask him if any of them sound familiar.
There are several barriers in trauma work and then a couple more on the cultural level, but the fact is that recovery is possible with a willingness to do some tough work, a willingness to be educated and to search for understanding, and an environment that is safe and supportive- in other words, compassionate. At the individual level, therapists who help people recover from trauma co create compassionate environments with our clients, and we encourage people to be compassionate towards themselves as they learn to find their paths to recovery.
Our species has endured many profoundly disturbing traumas over the millennia. This is a stark fact that has serious implications. We need to be as compassionate as we possibly can towards each other as we explore the real manifestations our trauma based responses have made on our cultural norms values and assumptions.