Examples Of Cultural Level Symptoms

What follows is a draft excerpt from a full chapter in the book.  This exerpt contains a list of “official” PTSD symptoms in blue (taken help guide.org) and some cultural level examples of how the symptoms are manifesting. Go to https://culturalptsd.org/defining-ptsd/ to see the unabridged version minus my cultural examples.

Bear in mind that motivations and meanings behind all behaviors are often quite subjective. Diagnosing mental illnesses in people is not as precise as solving a mathematical equation. Subjectivity always is present in the consulting office.

It’s also important to remember that the nature of interpretation is based on cultural contexts. And maybe most importantly, many manifestations of our motivations are symbolic or metaphorical at the individual level and they certainly are at the cultural levels as well.

Symptoms of PTSD #1: Re-experiencing the traumatic event

• Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event
• Flashbacks (acting or feeling like the event is happening again)
• Nightmares (either of the event or of other frightening things)

On a cultural level, the incredible levels of violence in our “entertainment” serve as cultural level ways of re-experiencing trauma.

The constant violence in popular movies, books, tv shows, is pervasive. Kids watching typical shows will witness depictions of untold numbers of murders, rapes assaults and other violent scenes by the time they are in high school.

Constant violence reinforces:
The idea that the world is a dangerous place, that violence is almost inevitable, and it normalizes violence as a thing that happens commonly, not a rare atrocity.
—These are all common beliefs held by people in the grips of PTSD.

Additionally, violence also perpetuates certain cultural norms:
It glorifies values, norms and assumptions that are unabashedly hyper masculine. In violent entertainment, aggression is normalized, brute force is legitimized. Violent entertainment glorifies and normalizes values, norms and assumptions that reinforce “might makes right” kinds of mindsets.  Recall that the use of force has been a way of consolidating power and control for some people for millennia (if they are the right gender, religion, skin color, etc.). Violent entertainment helps to perpetuate the sense that “might makes right” is pervasive in life and a legitimate way to live.

We are also bombarded by violence from our “news” outlets. In addition to this fitting into re-experiencing trauma, a focus on “violent acts as news” also correlates to the PTSD fear response of hypervigilance. Hypervigilance is a super common symptom of people with PTSD. It’s a tendency to notice any and all possible ways danger could become present, and to magnify the likelihood that danger is at hand. And unfortunate realities associated with this are that 1) fear does sell, and, 2) we are already hardwired to pay attention to danger even in normal circumstances.

• Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma
• Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating)

In these polarized times, it would be difficult to find a person who has not noticed how upset and irate people get when talking about hot button issues in the media. Friendships have been lost over politics, families fractured. Physiological changes happen when we get upset- our hearts race, our breathing gets shallow, we become tense jawed or clench our fists.

There are numerous topics that bring up physical symptoms of distress and anxiety with stunning ease in many people, and almost all of them have to do with differing perceptions about oppression (which is about power and control): Racism, sexism, homophobia, religious differences and religious encroachments on public life, gun rights, diplomacy vs. war strategies, military budgets, surveillance by intelligence agencies, the role of TSA, the role of ICE, crime and how to address it, the militarizing of police forces and use of force by police, the Patriot Act, the sexual objectification of women, the importance of and levels of violence in professional sports.

Other topics that can produce distress and anxiety symptoms (and are also at their roots about power and control) are the ideas of corporate citizenship, corporate welfare and tax breaks for the wealthy or poor, and staggering income inequities. Climate change, regulation of business, pollution, destroying the natural environment in order to pursue business, causing extinctions of flora and fauna, these are all linked to differing perceptions of what constitutes oppression and violence.

We-as humans- tend to have intense reactions to any and all topics that have to do with how to address power inequities.

Symptoms of PTSD #2: Avoidance and numbing

• Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma
• Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma

As we think about the way we categorize history, we neatly put “wars” into boxes without much emotion. Economists and historians have routinely glossed over the real life humanitarian impacts of war and replaced them with relentlessly unemotional tallying of economic costs and benefits.

Historical accounts up until recent decades routinely focused only on the “wins” of the victors and left out large swaths of facts having to do with the amount of suffering created by colonists, slavers, or conquerors.

In extremes, people deny atrocities where millions perished-such as Holocaust deniers. In Germany and several other European countries it is against the law to deny the Holocaust, precisely because many would. Other countries have routinely re written their histories to either erase the atrocities or make bloodshed look justified.

Americans have had dismal histories of dealing head on with our histories of racism and sexism.  Currently just the mention of these two words alone can cause otherwise normal people to become incredibly defensive. Many people will simply ignore or outright deny facts on policy issues in order to avoid facing them.

Currently there are attempts to lessen the amount of information in textbooks on slavery and other atrocities committed by Americans.

2021 update: Obviously, the vehemence some have shown towards even discussing racial injustice in schools is a symptom of this…the defensiveness around examining parts of reality exactly mirrors an incredibly common defensive reaction people have to working through personal traumas. Avoidance is a natural inclination. Ask any therapist who has ever specialized in trauma work.

When recounting our entertainment plot lines to friends whether in video or book form it’s common for people to leave out the amount of violence contained within.

• Loss of interest in activities and life in general
• Feeling detached from others and emotionally numb

For the past several years, Gallup’s yearly poll has shown that 65-70% of the American workforce are disengaged workers. That means they are numb or uninterested in the majority of their days.

Going back to the violence on TV, some people are actually proud of how little they are affected by seeing realistic violence on screens or in reading books. What would have horrified people for days in earlier generations, now doesn’t even make kids flinch as they idly watch horrendously violent scenes on screens of all shapes and sizes.

At this particular juncture in time, we focus on our phones more than the people next to us. People sitting alone in public places will invariable turn to their phones rather than just sit and be present in the place or watch people, people have become uninterested in their surroundings.

• Sense of a limited future (you don’t expect to live a normal life span, get married, have a career)

This very real sense that many have is due to real issues, of course, but it’s also been present in business practices for several decades now. The relentless pursuit of dirty energy can be seen as an expression of this symptom. Why not go for it all now, who knows if there will be a tomorrow? Pollution doesn’t really matter if we can’t imagine ourselves being here for any length of time. Corporate America’s relentless focus on the next quarter’s earnings is another example. In individuals with PTSD, we see people do reckless things because they don’t expect to be around long enough to have the long term effects of their actions catch up with them.

Symptoms of PTSD #3: Hyperarousal

• Sleep problems

A culture of 24/7 and frenetic pace of living can be seen as corollaries.

• Irritability or angry outbursts

Note the lack of civility in areas as diverse as professional sports, police brutality, the tenor of Americans towards those they disagree with, the stunningly blunt and hostile tweets of some political leaders. Mass shootings by disgruntled men also certainly fit into this category.

Update for 2021: uhhh, the very self centered focus on self at the expense of others in many quarters around pandemic issues, and the insurrection attempt due to the inability to accept reality based outcomes could be seen as very unfortunate exacerbation of symptoms that have been brewing for years.

• Hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”)

• Feeling jumpy and easily startled

I think it is clear to most people that the amount of government and commercial surveillance is excessive. Historically there have been rises of secret police and spying organizations all over the world that get more and more corrupt and paranoid over time. This can be seen as an organizational level expression of the PTSD symptom of hypervigilance.

We spend 54 cents of every “discretionary” federal dollar on some for of “defense” while families go hungry, exorbitant costs prevent people from getting access to healthcare, and and our infrastructures crumble. Political leaders of various stripes feel compelled to ensure we keep an obscene amount of money going to “defense” and we keep producing defense weapon after defense weapon for fairly non existent threats, or ones we create.

• Aggressive, self-destructive, or reckless behavior

This is clearly seen in the corrupt practices of businesses. There are examples like the recklessness of pharmaceutical companies marketing drugs that are clearly dangerous, delays in recalls of cars and other products with serious defects, fraudulent loan practices by previously respected businesses, not to mention the entire series of events leading up to the recession of 2008.

In other areas, the quickness with which military solutions are suggested for dealing with conflicts, not addressing Climate Change aggressively, not stopping arms proliferations, not heeding common sense about dismantling militaries instead of continuing to fund them at obscene rates -these are all examples of this symptom.

Symptoms of PTSD #4: This cluster of symptoms has to do with negative mood, and includes:

*Guilt, shame, or self-blame

*Feeling alienated and alone

*Feelings of mistrust and betrayal

*Difficulty concentrating or remembering things

*Depression and hopelessness

These negative mood symptoms -as well as the physiological reactions mentioned above-are easily seen (at least fleetingly) in the vast majority of people who are worried about our various social problems.  Indeed, it would be pretty rare to find an educated, well informed, person who does not -at least at times- suffer from some of these issues when they think about the mess of problems we face. I’m not sure if I’ve ever personally met someone like that.