What Is Cultural PTSD-The Longer Answer

It is no secret that we face a multitude of very serious societal problems. We have worked long and hard to resolve these problems based on various theories about their causes. Ideas about economic theories, the role of government, what “human nature” is, and other thoughts about why these problems exist and are so persistent have been put forth.

Pathways to Power

In trying to make sense of what appear to be incredibly dysfunctional “leadership” decisions and thought processes, I began to notice a pattern.  To oversimplify it a bit: Many people currently get to positions of leadership (a.k.a. power) not because they are good leaders or have good ideas, but because they are consumed with greed and attaining power.

This is not news. We all can think of people in power who we believe are not good leaders and only got the their positions by being power hungry (or in some cases by being puppets for even more power hungry people). But why does this happen? I first conceived of the problems as being produced from certain people becoming addicted to power and greed. I still think that those are actual phenomena that greatly contribute to our societal level problems. But as I’ll discuss, I now see those things as symptoms rather than the root illness.

Greed as Addiction

Conceiving of the problem of greed as an addiction to power was a slightly different way of looking at the issue in my mind. Rather than simply seeing these people exhibit purely willful behaviors born of innate selfishness, lack of self discipline, lack of maturity, over abundance of ambition or drive, or what have you, I began to see it as a psychological addiction, like a gambling problem or overeating.

With that as my working theory, I began to dig into the idea deeper and soon ran into a problem. The questions that kept surfacing for me were 1) Why do some people get addicted to greed and power? And, 2) Why do these people succeed; that is why do they retain positions of power when their actions are harmful to so many people?

Addiction and the Need for Power and Control

Let me begin with the first question.  As a licensed psychotherapist by trade I know that chemical addictions have biological roots, but that psychological addictions: anorexia, compulsive gambling, sexual addictions, compulsive overeating, internet addictions, etc. all have their roots in attempts to compensate for some otherwise normal, but unmet needs.

I won’t go into all the variations on why these different addictions can come about, but there are often power and control issues at the root of them. And since I was conceiving these dysfunctional behaviors as outright addictions to power and control, I began to formulate a second, related question: What makes people become -in plain English- “control freaks”,  that is, consumed with having power and control? Ask any trained psychotherapist that question and the first answer they will -or should- come up with is one word: Trauma [1]. So that was bubbling around in my mind as I grappled with the second question.

Why Do We Let Dysfunctional People Stay in Power?

This is necessarily a much more complex question.  And I do not think this theory of Cultural PTSD fully explains all the reasons why this happens.  But it begins to provide some answers. Examining this question meant shifting my focus to cultural level values, norms, assumptions and dynamics. As I did so, I began to recognize a large number of corollaries between the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in individuals, and our current cultural level realities.

Even if there has been no trauma, everyone has innate needs to feel safe and urges to protect ourselves and loved ones. Safety concerns are normal needs that all humans have. Some focus on safety is necessary to ensure our survival as a species. But how much focus is too much?  And how much is not enough?  In PTSD, people’s assumptions about and “automatic” reactions to safety and danger are altered in important ways. What appears to be incredibly overbearing and excessive behavior, norms, values, and assumptions to some people, seems rational and normal to people in the grips of trauma based responses.

All groups of people who live together create cultural norms and values, and (as it is very difficult to think outside of our own cultural blinders), we do not create norms and values very consciously.  Cultural norms and values associated with safety are key, and I argue they are (unconsciously) given more weight due to the importance of safety to our overall survival.  Having power and feeling safe are closely related anyway, and exacerbated when trauma is involved. Normal human reactions to trauma are discussed in more detail elsewhere on this site. But one crucial piece of normal trauma reaction involves avoiding any thorough examination of the trauma– I mean, who wants to go back and dissect bad memories? Who wants to wade through complex and highly upsetting materials to thoroughly become aware of our triggers and reactions?  This is very difficult to do for individuals.  Certainly this becomes even more complicated on cultural levels (for a quick example, frank discussions having to do with oppression of any sort can easily bring out defensive reactions in many people, which in turn stymies our abilities to heal from our cultural level actions).  And as a species we’ve endured a lot of trauma over thousands of years and hundreds of generations, so an over focus on power easily results. And thus a short and over simplified answer to our question is that leaders who are able to successfully activate trauma based responses in people are able to stay in power. Examples of this are evident in any and virtually all cursory examinations of historical and present day wars and armed conflicts.

Virtually every major culture that has survived into modern times has been plagued with issues stemming from power hungry elements. Consolidation of “power over” can come in a variety of forms-from governments and militaries, to business monopolies and religions, to rigid gender and social roles, to severe exploitation of other humans. These dynamics all come about due to large needs to feel in control and safe that are expressed in maladaptive ways.

Power and Cultural PTSD

As I delved deeper into the corollaries between PTSD and our cultural dysfunctions, it appeared to me that the unrecognized effects of trauma based decision making on a cultural level are quite large in scope and reach. While it may seem like hyperbole at this point in introducing this theory, I have come to the conclusion that it is not an overstatement to say that cultural level trauma based decisions around the uses of power have played parts in creating virtually all of our most serious social problems.

It is essential for us to become aware of the issue, and to counteract it as we strive to create solutions and just policies for a better world. I want people to understand the effects of trauma and more clearly understand how historical trauma has contributed to our most pressing current societal problems.

Formulating Problems Correctly is Essential

Only by understanding the true nature of our problems can we really resolve them.[2] To those ends, this piece is mainly a cultural analysis that uses a “trauma informed” lens to examine historical trauma at the cultural level, and then explore how “unprocessed” historical trauma has affected and continues to affect us on large scale levels and in many domains.

Mistaking Symptoms for Root Problems

I want to show how dynamics at work in seemingly separate spheres are actually stemming from unrecognized trauma based responses that have been shaping our cultural contexts and official policies in numerous spheres of life.

We have generally formulated our most pressing issues as problems in need of individual solutions instead of seeing them as interrelated symptoms of a root illness.  I’m referring to symptoms like: 

Polarized and seemingly impenetrable ideological differences,

Our continued focus on violence to solve diplomatic issues,

Reckless depleting of resources, complete with climate change denial,

Patriarchal cultural norms which encourage hyper-competition to maintain “power over” others and lead to

Xenophobia and oppression

Vast income inequities

An obsession with surveillance by our governments,

Millions of disengaged workers[3], numb and resentful about their jobs.

These problems have only gotten worse despite our attempts to resolve them- because we have been looking at them as root issues, when they are symptoms. This theory shows the roots of these very real and serious problems are responses to unconscious assumptions, norms and values that are in actuality trauma based responses (TBRs) on a cultural level. That missing piece of understanding has very much hindered us in creating workable solutions to these issues. When we finally begin to see these issues as inter-related symptoms rather than separate issues, resolving the issues actually becomes more achievable.

Awareness of PTSD in Individuals and Culturally

As a behavioral health provider, I have seen hundreds of people with some symptoms of PTSD. When we recognize symptoms like reckless behavior, extreme anger, impatience, need for control, paranoia, depression, isolation and numbness as the trauma based responses they are, we can then proceed with effective treatment techniques and strategies that lead to full recoveries.

Effective treatment for PTSD does not focus on addressing each symptom separately, the treatment focuses on helping individuals address the larger issue -old traumas- safely and consciously. Only then can people then more easily choose healthier ways of responding. When we don’t recognize the symptoms as stemming from a larger issue and try to address them individually, our results are much less effective. I believe this is true on a cultural level as well. So this piece is a call to action for us to begin using the concept of Cultural PTSD and trauma informed thinking in order to come up with better resolutions to our social problems in general.


1. Or, if they are talking in jargon, the answer might be: “Outsized needs for and attempts to gain power and control are often born of unprocessed trauma and can be called “trauma based responses” or “trauma based decision making”.

2. Here I was going to quote Albert Einstein, but as with any important figure, Einstein is often misquoted. I like the pithy “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes making sure I defined the problem correctly.” But alas, he apparently never said that.(https://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/05/22/solve/ website accessed Dec 2017). What we know for certain he wrote is: “The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution… To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle…marks real advances in science.” This quote is from the book “The Evolution of Physics” by Einstein and Infield. My source for that is from: https://todayinsci.com/E/Einstein_Albert/EinsteinAlbert-ProblemQuote800px.htm (accessed Dec 2017)

3.  67% of American workers are disengaged. Worldwide, the figures are even worse. Summary from 2016: news.gallup.com/businessjournal/188033/worldwide-employee-engagement-crisis.aspx  Other studies also report as high or higher disengagement from work.