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 in many ways stem from mostly unconscious reactions to trauma.

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.

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, often times in profound ways.   These include being unreasonably suspicious of people, and becoming overly focused on power and control.  The implications for our cultural norms and values from these typical reactions to trauma are immense.   Additionally, when were are ill or troubled, we often have difficult times seeing others’ needs as legitimate, making it easier to violate the rights of others.

Again, common trauma reactions (and their implications for common cultural norms, beliefs, and values) are explored in more detail in the book, but for now, just trust me when I say: People often reenact traumas in misguided attempts to try to resolve grief or make understanding of their experiences.

It’s also important to 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 numbing may, in fact, be a large part of the reason why some groups of people have over the millennia been able to be so brutal towards each other.

History Itself Is Focused On Trauma

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.

Does it not make sense that our cultural norms and assumptions should be affected by the amount of trauma we’ve endured?

 Trans Generational Trauma

Social workers, social scientists, anthropologists, and counselors have known that families, geographical regions, and indeed entire cultures routinely suffer for generations due to the injustices and traumas experienced by their ancestors. The mechanisms are too complex to summarize in this brief space, but the bottom line is clear: fall out from trauma and/or oppression takes generations to fully recover from.  We know this as social scientists and researchers, as historians.

But we fail to see the exact corollaries in the dominant cultures we live in.  We fail to see (clearly) 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 reactions at the neurological level in survivors is exciting, and has helped us become more skillful in helping people process trauma.

But it’s not the whole story. What psychology has not yet made explicit though is that trauma based reactions affect us both individually and culturally in a variety of realms.  We all shape our cultures just as our cultural norms values and assumptions shape us. Our unexamined personal trauma based reactions affect both us and they help to influence our cultural norms at profound levels. Trauma based assumptions have affected us sociologically, psychologically, anthropologically, and spiritually.


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 see problems 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 social problems, the dysfunctions are -in large part- symptoms of trauma responses. These social problems are not the root issues themselves. When we do not see the likely (common) causality in trying to resolve these issues, we are like doctors before germ theory, wildly guessing at what causes infections, and being none to successful in resolving them as a result.

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 large part- due to unconscious trauma based reactions. 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 reactions (TBR).


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. Or to put it another way:

Trauma Makes Us Behave In Selfish And Primitive Ways

Primitive and 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 a good deal of 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 reactions, and in failing to see the similarities, we have allowed our cultural beliefs, traditions, and institutions to be shaped by fear and 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 reactions 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.