1) Human History Abounds With Trauma
When we think about the general history of any geographic area, we think in terms of wars, disasters, epidemics, and the like. In other words, we conceptualize history in terms of trauma.
Traumatic events happened often and routinely: The amount of trauma our ancestors faced is eye-opening in terms of its frequency, amount, and diversity. Up until recently, disease, crop failures, drought, predators, and other threats from nature such as fire or flooding were much less well controlled. Trauma from things as routine as childbirth happened on a regular basis. Epidemics took lives by the thousands on a regular basis. Over the past few hundred years, the sheer numbers of people affected by violence born of war and empire building are simply staggering to consider.
2) The Extent and Impact of Trauma is Not Recognized on a Cultural Level
The full theory enumerates eight reasons why we have not previously recognized the strong similarities between typical trauma based reactions and certain cultural norms. In this space, I will only very briefly offer three reasons. Our own cultural constructs are very hard for us to see. In addition, there is a natural inclination to avoid thinking about trauma whenever possible, and until very recently, we have not had effective interventions for dealing with trauma.
3) We Have Cultural Level PTSD Symptoms
Consulting Room Issues
Let’s say I get a client in my office who literally spends half his family’s “discretionary” money on guns, ammunition, disaster equipment, and security cameras. Additionally, a huge amount his energy is also devoted to keeping his family safe in ways that worry them. He complains of feeling numb, while his wife says he is paranoid and quick to anger.
Based on just these pieces of information, virtually all reasonable clinicians will attempt to find out if this client has some unresolved trauma in his background.
The Consulting Room’s Cultural Parallel:
On a cultural level: In the U.S., we spend 54 cents out of each Federal Budget “discretionary” dollar on “defense” while kids go hungry, and medical treatment is exorbitantly priced for most people. We also have completely out of control “intelligence” agencies spying on law abiding citizens, and entities on the internet obsessively mining data for consumer information, often without our permission.
Further, we can blow up the world dozens of times over. We are often completely unable to see people with different ideologies as trustworthy. We behave in ways we know are destroying our planet, compulsively using dirty energy, and depleting resources. According to several sources, 65-70% of workers are disengaged from their jobs, which means the majority of their days are spent numb and unhappy. Many citizens feel terrorized by police, and obvious corruption can be found in many public arenas. These are social facts, not political statements. The corollaries to common PTSD symptoms are there. We just need to recognize them as such.
Other examples can be found in:
*The reckless greed and obsessions with power and control found in big business and politics;
*The high levels of violence in our entertainment industries;
*The dissociative like symptoms of incredibly bad “customer service” providers in all sorts of corporate environments;
*The pervasive and incredibly short sighted over emphasis on aggressive military solutions;
*The obsessive quest to build a border wall, such as those built in medieval times;
*The aggressive xenophobia found in some, such as the supporters of the idea to build border walls.
These and other dynamics can be seen as cultural level forms of typical maladaptive trauma based reactions.
Other Psychological Parallels
Power And Control Issues
Fear about any potential loss of power affects many humans on primordial levels. We are often triggered without even recognizing that we have been triggered. Think about how quickly people get defensive about topics where power inequity is at the core of disagreements: racism, sexism, religion, homophobia, etc.
Humans resort to Either/Or thinking, also known as inflexible thinking when we are stressed or threatened. This is a physiological fact. Clearly, our many social issues (which boil down to power) cause us significant amounts of stress at cultural levels, and polarization is common
Trouble Seeing Others As Equal
When people have significant behavioral health issues, they naturally become more self absorbed. As a result, they often have difficulty fully seeing others as multi dimensional beings with needs and desires as relevant as their own.
Certainly, empire builders from previous generations had trouble seeing others as fully equal to themselves. This inability helped spur centuries of relentless militaristic empire building and mostly successful attempts to eradicate or colonize less power obsessed cultures, and have produced complex systems of oppression which have thrived for centuries.
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. We are most definitely still reeling from those effects.
4) PTSD Seriously Impairs People
PTSD, by definition, can and does seriously impair people’s abilities to reason, function and cooperate with others at productive levels. There are a wide variety of cultural level parallels that appear to be quite similar to common individual impairments.
Some Indicators of Cultural Level Impairment:
* A large sense of disconnect and distrust between many groups: workers and management, consumers and corporations, constituents and legislators, etc.
* Scarcity and the need for competition are assumed to be normal, ideal even. Scarcity and fear based thinking are typical responses seen in PTSD.
* Paranoia and distrust: Xenophobia can easily be found in certain political leaders in this country. This produces cultural level polarization and normalizes the use of inflexible thinking, neither of which are psychologically healthy.
* Institutional and often unconscious discrimination still leads to oppression. This is objective fact, and yet denied or trivialized by many. Trivialization and denial can be seen as 1) avoidance, 2) of the level of rationalization and denial based thinking commonly found in people with PTSD, and 3) a (usually unconscious) tactic to preserve current levels of power and control over others.
* Compassion is devalued. This is seen in the relentless quest for money over the health of the planet and the health of the citizenry. In short it is clear we live within cultural norms that routinely value profit over the compassionate treatment of people and the planet. This points to a very high cultural level of dysfunction.
* In contrast, the amount of funding given to military spending and law enforcement point to a very skewed sense of danger and clear evidence of fear based thinking, much like people with PTSD commonly show.
* Superstition and victim blaming are still common. Humans naturally fear being victimized and will do anything to avoid feeling vulnerable after a traumatic event. Victim blaming is a maladaptive but predictable response to trauma. As humans, we desperately look for ways to avoid trauma from occurring in the future, even at the expense of logic or the rights of others.
* We still resort to force and violence to address what are ultimately social problems. The use of these measures is the equivalent of resolving inter-personal issues with violence.
(5) PTSD Of Any Kind Is Treatable
Currently we are learning more and more about the effects of trauma, and we are getting better and better at treating it. Evidence Based Practices for PTSD exist and are getting more and more robust and effective every day. Additionally, Trauma Informed Care principles (which recognize and address how “standard” agency policies can be re traumatizing to those with trauma in their histories) are already spreading through various fields.
6) We Need to Treat Ourselves For Cultural PTSD
Trauma symptoms are common to see in therapy, and we need to address them as such in order to produce good outcomes. If I try to work with a client on issues like numbness, anxiety, and controlling behaviors without ever linking them back to traumas that originally triggered them, the results are likely to be less than robust. The same is true of our cultural level dysfunctions, discomforts, and pain points.
Insight and education help immensely. Recognizing our problems for what they truly are, and where they truly come from is key to resolving any issue. Awareness is the first step in treatment for any problem in any realm.
Adaptation of Trauma Informed Care (TIC) and Evidence Based Practices are starting points for creating governing policies and for creating social norms in more conscious ways. Additionally, focusing on and implementing compassion based strategies is essential to fully recover from our personal and cultural level dysfunctions.