Human History Abounds With Trauma

Making generalizations about a topic like “human history” is a tricky business. Any generalization is easily countered by examples that do not follow the argument being made. And the term “history” is a very broad word. Every topic has its own history: there are dozens of offshoots, some of which are also very broad: for example, there is this huge entity called “scientific history”, and then there are things like “the history of sewing machines”, which have far more specific histories. Many of these specific histories are based on innovations and improvements. This is also true of the scientific disciplines that study our social lives: in general, the history of psychology and sociology and anthropology are about thought leaders and innovators in those fields.

And I think because of that, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that general history is focused on something very different. Crucially different.

How General Human History Is Conceptualized

General history is based on wars, geo political upheavals, epidemics, severe economic problems, and fear based discrimination and turmoil. Studying the history of Africa, Europe, North America, South America, or any other geo political place, means learning about the specific wars, battles, hardships and struggles of the people in that area. Studying general world history is mostly a study of violence. Military history takes up rows and rows of books in any history section. War, strife, conquests, colonizations, famines, epidemics and natural disasters are what we think of when we think of history in general terms. In short, when we think about our roots as humans, we think in terms of trauma. We mark our epochs by trauma the same way individuals divide their lives into life before the trauma, and life after trauma. We come -as a species- from traumatic roots. We -as a species- are all very much like families that grew up with generational violence.

Environmental/Natural Traumas

Historically there were (and, in many parts of the world continue to be) “routine” traumas due to death by worldly factors we did not know how to control- epidemics, cancers (wasting diseases), difficult childbirths, malnutrition brought by famines, drought, swarms of insects, etc.  And even in highly developed countries, these things happened until recently. Polio was not understood or contained until well past my own mother’s childhood days. My own father lost a brother to measles. These things produced trauma for everyone affected, families, communities, entire nations.

Other natural disasters such as fire, earthquakes, floods, droughts, freezing conditions, and hurricanes took lives with frightening regularity. Even certain animals were real threats and took lives with far more regularity than they do today.

We still routinely lose battles[1] to diseases, and in many parts of the world, entire groups of people suffer and die from natural disasters, preventable health issues, and hunger, just as they have for millennia.

Human Made Trauma

All those rows of military history tell stories of innumerable trauma. The collective trauma of oppressed and colonized peoples, enslaved people, war torn people, displaced people, persecuted people, ostracized people, is absolutely staggering in scope. A CONSERVATIVE estimate of World War II is 40 million casualties. That’s the equivalent of blowing up every last person living in California today in the course of 4 years. That leaves a legacy.

Wikipedia’s “Casualties of War” page lists well over 325,000,000 people perishing in and because of (large scale) wars in the last 5000-10,000 years. All of those people had families, most of whom grieved their lost family members. If you’ve ever lost a loved one -even from natural causes- and you remember the intensity of your grief and you then multiply that by 325 million times, then the impact of those numbers becomes truly infathomable.

These paragraphs don’t even begin to account for all the non lethal violence (both purposeful and accidental) that has traumatized millions of people in just the last 5000-10,000 years. The weight of that trauma is something we are not aware of, but its influence has been profound on our species.

Some of the trauma we’ve inflicted on each other is in some ways even worse in that it was done while we were trying to help each other.  As we’ve made attempts to heal from disease, sicknesses and the hardships of our environments, we’ve produced countless innovations. And almost inevitably, some of those innovations compound and reproduce traumas, either through greed or ignorance, usually some combination of both.

The Impact of Trauma

The list of traumas that we have endured is long and has occurred in many realms. By definition, trauma of any sort has consequences.

People studying trauma say that trauma has a way of dividing life into before and after trauma[2]. Researchers note is that trauma survivors often experience themselves as changed due to the traumatic event: they say “I’ve changed”, “It changed me”, “Life is not the same”. For people, for example, who have had a loved one die in an auto accident, or have been assaulted, a very common response is to develop a mindset of “life before the trauma” and “life after the trauma”.

For some, the changes fade peacefully enough, or are incorporated into adaptive coping skills. But for many-probably the majority of people- unprocessed trauma leaves deep scars and makes important changes in how life is experienced; changes that are often unnoticed in the vastness of their scope.

And in many cases, people can and do live with trauma that is unprocessed, we live with sharp pangs of un necessary guilt disguising our grief, we live shying away from intimacy, we live with cynical views about love and other people, we live feeling trapped in our jobs, afraid to take risks, and we limp along, functional enough, surviving but not really thriving.  Sometimes we develop reactions and coping mechanisms that seem reasonable at the time, but end up causing disastrous consequences- for example deciding never to ride in a car again, or never allowing oneself to become close to people are coping mechanisms that people develop as a result of trauma. A good number of people -especially those with multiple traumas in their histories- go on to develop many symptoms of PTSD, or PTSD itself.

Repeated Trauma and Earlier Cultural Contexts

Think about people exposed to trauma several thousands of years ago.  And keep in mind, trauma was a much more routine fact of life then. Though much has changed, these people shaped the foundations of our current day cultural contexts in profound ways.

When there is the possibility of more trauma -when trauma is routine- there is no way to think deeply about how to proceed, one needs to be prepared for the next trauma. There was also not a lot of knowledge about how to handle trauma. But regaining a sense of power and control was needed, and it was done by any means available.  It’s still a current need. People still need to regain a sense of power and control by any means available in the aftermath of trauma.

As a result of traumas we’ve endured simply from our environments, we’ve learned to try to control nature and man made environments. This in itself is not an unusual response. In fact, it’s a perfectly logical and predictable phenomenon. A psychologically healthy and normal response to trauma is to try to control our environments to keep future traumas from happening again.

However (and this is an enormous however), knee jerk attempts to control future traumas are often ill thought out, ineffective and lead to more problems. As we’ll discuss elsewhere, the prevalence of knee jerk decision making in the aftermath of trauma is a very common -and almost inevitable- phenomenon. And, it’s an enormously important one; I will be referring to the dynamic as a “trauma based response” (TBR).

On an individual level, to stop ourselves from repeating the same TBRs over and over, we need safety, awareness of the root issue, support, knowledge of techniques, willingness to delve into uncomfortable territory, and space and time to practice those techniques. None of those things were really available to our ancestors in the same ways they are available to us now.

The scope of our historical and current trauma based decision making will be explored in more detail in later chapters. The main points for now:  are 1) We have experienced many, many traumas as humans. 2) Trauma routinely changes how people conduct their lives, often in unnoticed ways.  3) Coping techniques that can work in the immediate aftermath of trauma- that is TBRs- can become large problems for us later. These TBRs are also transmitted from individuals to produce cultural norms, assumptions and values.

As we proceed with our cultural analysis, it becomes clear that many -if not the majority- of the innovations and infrastructures we humans have designed to cope with the world have come from TBRs. We have reacted to our environments as traumatized people do, in ways very analogous to people with PTSD.

Becoming aware of our TBRs on a cultural level is a crucial puzzle piece that has been missing -or at least not emphasized enough- as we’ve attempted to solve many of our most vexing problems.

Finally, historical trauma also plays into our epidemic levels of current trauma, much of it inflicted by other humans.  See the next section: Rates of Trauma Experienced by Americans 


[1] Using the word battle to describe struggles is so second nature to us, we barely register the violence implied by our use of the word. But taking a look at the definition shows us how immersed in violence the word really is. “battle: a sustained fight between large, armed forces. Some synonyms: fight, armed conflict, clash, struggle, skirmish, engagement, fray, duel, war, campaign, crusade, fighting, warfare, combat, actions”
[2] See for example: “Trauma Change Resilience” talk by Dr Megan McElheran TEDxYYC, 2011