Thoughts About the Idea of Cultural PTSD

In earlier generations and in all parts of the world, we had real scarcity, and we had experiences of real -and unavoidable- disaster.  Humans endured millions of deaths and hardships due to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, droughts, floods, swarms of locusts, failed crops, influenzas, predators, cancers, epidemics of smallpox, plague, cholera, other illnesses, childbirth itself, the list goes on and on.

We were often not able to protect ourselves, but we did have to carry on as best as we could. We did not have the time nor awareness to really process the traumas thoroughly and often chose to blame ourselves, others, or our gods for our ills.  Think of all the superstitions people believed and lived by so they would not experience natural disasters or other trauma.

The very first thing a person recovering from trauma needs to do is regain a sense of power and control over their lives and environments. We can do that in adaptive or maladaptive ways. In this piece I will directly link the dynamic of oppression to attempts to regain power and control by any means available. Think of all the different groups of humans that have been oppressed by people so desperate for power and control that they were unable to see others as fully human.  Clearly these dynamics are not healthy.  I want to demonstrate that these kinds of dynamics and other related ills, are due to us living within cultures that are in (large) part based on our unconscious responses to trauma.  Let me say it again in a slightly different way:

I think a large component of our cultural legacy (as an entire species) is a profoundly un-acknowledged and unrecognized legacy of deeply embedded trauma based responses to perceived threats.

Make no mistake, the original traumas that shaped parts of the dominant cultures we live in today were serious and real. Life was very much more tenuous and dangerous. Estimates about the average life expectancy for people show that people lived for far shorter periods of time.The point is, a great majority of people experienced trauma on a regular basis. Life threatening trauma was around people in their day to day lives.

I’m going to hypothesize that trauma was first mostly from natural dangers like those listed above. But trauma has a funny way of changing people’s behaviors, some times in profound ways. And unfortunately, humans often treat others poorly due to their own trauma experiences. Additionally, when were are ill or troubled, we often have difficult times seeing others’ needs as legitimate.

I’ll go into more detail about what common trauma responses are later on, but for now, just trust me when I say: People often re enact traumas in misguided attempts to try to resolve grief or make understanding of their experiences. I’m going to also point out that when people are faced with a lot of trauma, they become numb and -routinely- do not fully comprehend some of their actions. This is my belief about why people have over the millennia been able to be so brutal towards each other.

Think about how we put history into contexts: we define time periods by wars, famines, plagues, droughts, slavery, assassinations, oppressive regimes, invasions, pogroms and colonization. On a stupendous scale, trauma has been re-enacted countless times over by humans towards each other. 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.

Our very nascent and incomplete awareness of epigenetics has shown fairly indisputably that offspring of Holocaust survivors carry an anxiety about the world that appears to be closely related to their parents’ experiences. Does it not make sense that our cultural norms and assumptions should be affected by the amount of trauma we’ve endured?

Epigenetics is starting to explore and shed light on what have been fairly common understandings among those who are affiliated with social sciences have been trying to articulate and address for years. Social workers, and counselors have known that families and indeed entire cultures suffer over generations due to the injustices and traumas perpetrated on their ancestors. But we fail to see the exact corollaries in the dominant cultures we live in.  We fail to see how unprocessed trauma has affected our current norms and assumptions and thus our governmental policies in profound ways.

Trauma and tragedies are huge shapers of our psychologies as individuals, and the fact that we can now prove correlation between trauma and certain responses at the neurological level in survivors is exciting, but it doesn’t go far enough. Trauma based responses affect us both individually and culturally in a variety of realms.  Trauma based assumptions have  affected us sociologically, psychologically, anthropologically, and spiritually.  We shape our cultures as our cultural norms values and assumptions shape us. Our unexamined cultural level trauma based responses affect our cultural norms at profound levels.

*************

The number of of cultural norms that have been formed as a result of trauma based responses isn’t completely obvious at first glance, which is why we tend to focus on things as varied as economics, child rearing, cap and trade issues, marketing and consumerism, business regulations or the lack of, income inequality and so on as separate issues and as stand alone current problems and downfalls.

There are all sorts of theories as to how to address these problems. All sorts of programs “to help”, and some of them actually do help. But for the vast majority of our ills, the dysfunctions are in large part symptoms of trauma responses, not the root issues themselves. So in trying to resolve these issues, we are like doctors before germ theory, wildly guessing at what causes infections.

Cultural PTSD theory says that everything from corruption, mental illness, crime, disconnection from nature, pollution, the loss of habitats, to poverty, institutional biases, dysfunctional workplaces, fundamentalism (in whatever form it takes), the problems with educational systems, traffic, the loudness of our cities, anti intellectualism, the rise of patriarchal norms, and the obsessional quests to make money-these issues have ALL been formed and become looming problems -in part- due to trauma responses. Usually we point instead to things like greed as a culprit in these issues.

It’s true, greed and quests for power play large parts in contributing to almost all of these ills, but as noted above, greed and outsized needs for power and control are both born of fear and insecurity, and those things are born of… trauma. They come about as natural attempts to cope with trauma in maladaptive ways. In the helping fields we call them trauma based responses (TBR).

WHAT TRAUMA DOES

Even in the best of circumstances, people(s) who experience trauma try their best to shield themselves from it in the future. This is due to a survival instinct. Some of those ways have been very adaptive- we’ve progressed enormously in creating technologies to help us live more safely.

But we’ve also internalized certain coping mechanisms that are utterly primitive and do not serve us well at all. This is a normal thing that survivors of trauma do. Repeat: Adapting by any means available is a normal thing for survivors of trauma to do.

Fear based behaviors and beliefs -routinely- come about as a result of trauma. I’m going to keep repeating this because it is important: Becoming fearful and overly focused on trying to remain safe are very common first responses to trauma and they often remain primary issues for years after the fact.  It actually takes conscious work to not respond in fear based ways after trauma. Why should this be any different on a cultural level?

Up until now, we have not recognized the cultural level impacts of trauma based responses, and in failing to see the similarities, we have allowed our cultural beliefs, traditions, and institutions to be shaped in maladaptive ways.

In psychology, providers having what’s called a “trauma informed” awareness are growing in number.  That means more and more of us recognize that the impacts of trauma can and do shape lives in all domains and in a wide variety of ways.

Our habits, thoughts, senses of self worth, styles of attachment, relational patterns, beliefs, etc., are shaped by traumatic experiences. The impacts of trauma can inform just about every aspect of people’s lives.

The time is upon us to understand that trauma based responses have -on a cultural level- shaped us in a great many ways. By recognizing and understanding the effects of trauma on a cultural level, we can finally understand the roots of our maladaptive reactions (starting perhaps with the proliferation of weapons) and learn to more consciously reshape our collective cultural responses so that more sustainable solutions can actually be implemented.