Coping, Insensitively

testosteroneWhen you go into the army (or away to summer camp, or boarding school, or prison) one of the objectives is usually to get you to ‘mature’, to be more independent of those who have nurtured and sheltered you, to help you learn to cope for yourself. For those who are sensitive, especially, it can be a horrifically traumatic (“creating substantial, lasting damage to the psychological development of a person, often leading to mental illness”) experience.

Nature’s way of dealing with trauma is chemical: dopamine, adrenaline, endorphins, testosterone and other hormones are released by our bodies to buffer us from emotional shock.

  • Dopamine is a drug that induces feelings of pleasure, both to prompt us to desire things (food, sex) and to mitigate shock, making us feel ‘less bad’ about some terrible occurrence. Dopamine ‘overdoses’, it is believed, can cause psychoses. There is a compelling theory that suggests modern humans are ‘addicted’ to dopamine, as a result of becoming desensitized to its effects — drugs like cocaine release dopamine in large amounts. 
  • Adrenaline (epinephrine) is released in our bodies in response to a threatening or exciting occurrence. This allows us to briefly perform exceptional physical feats (like escaping from a predator) but also brings temporary euphoria. 
  • Endorphins are our natural pain killers, regulating sensitivity to pain, panic, feelings of hunger and production of sex hormones. They are produced when they are needed (when we are sick or injured) and also (perhaps as a reward/reinforcement mechanism) when we laugh, play, exercise, and when we eat certain foods. 
  • Testosterone and other sex hormones regulate growth, muscle mass, aggressiveness, and sex drive. They are produced to direct us into our roles in our communities, to procreate and to protect the species.

In situations of extreme stress, or when because of poor diet, drug abuse or other deregulating situations the balance of these hormones gets chronically out of whack, the consequences are various forms of psychosis, mental illness. Beyond this, neither medical science nor ‘psychology’ has a clue. Civilization has developed a whole arc of myths to explain our aberrant behaviour when the chemical cocktail of our brains and bodies is unable to do its regulating job: “Good’ versus ‘evil’, criminality, the ability to ‘tell right from wrong’, ‘terrorism’, the need for law and order, political and economic and educational control systems to teach people to behave ‘properly’ and punish and ‘correct’ them when they don’t.

To me this is all preposterous. It is a Darwinian absurdity to believe that all this repression is needed to make a species behave in its (and our world’s) collective interest. It seems to me all of our species’ dysfunctional behaviour is a response to our society’s unmanageable stress, not a cause of it.

Consider an extreme case — a child who hurts animals when he’s young, becomes a bully in his teenage years, and then develops into a pathological liar, manipulator, and psychopathic megalomaniac in his adult years. (We all know at least one such person — because of their lack of moral scruples and remorse, they tend to be very successful in politics and business). Let me say up front I’m not going to be an apologist for this behaviour — and if I ever caught anyone face-to-face who was physically or psychologically abusing animals, children, subordinates or ‘loved’ ones I would probably commit a violent act against him.

But could such behaviour actually be a coping mechanism for trauma? If you’re abused yourself, or if you just can’t cope with the real world, and just find it overwhelming, might you take it out on others more helpless than you, as a ‘best defence is a good offence’ means of desensitizing yourself, telling yourself that it’s not really as horrific as it might seem? And if that behaviour actually does alleviate the trauma, do you then go on to more serious, more antisocial and more desensitizing (and hence further self-reinforcing) behaviours? And how about withdrawal into depression or alcoholism, which have been shown to cause physical atrophy of nerve endings — are these also means of desensitizing ourselves? And escaping into daydreams, agoraphobia, self-isolation and withdrawal? And violent movies and video games? And the preponderance of porn, that objectivizes women and de-emotionalizes sex?

Yes, I can hear the conservatives (if any of them are still reading) ranting that I’m blaming everything on ‘society’ and absolving individuals from personal responsibility for their behaviour. And to an extent they’re right. To what extent are we really in control of how we feel, and what we believe, and what we do? To what extent are we really driven by our bodies and by our biochemistry and by the instinctive and other subconscious acts that make up 99.99% of our information processing and decision-making bandwidth?

When we applaud people who ‘suck it up’ and who, despite personal setbacks and trauma are able to live peaceful and ‘productive’, obedient lives, and when we institutionalize and write off those who are unable to cope and who succumb to alcoholism or incapacitating depression, and when we reward other psychopaths who ruthlessly and remorselessly step on and over others to become rich or powerful, what does this say about us?

If you buy what I’m saying, we have two problems to solve: How should we treat (ideally before they become seriously anti-social)  those who are least able to cope with our traumatizing civilization? And in the longer run, how can we make our civilization less traumatizing?

I’ve answered the second question in many of my How to Save the World posts: By replacing our political and economic and educational and legal systems with more egalitarian, decentralized, diverse, accommodating, community-based systems that are directed towards well-being for all, and for our planet, instead of the accumulation of wealth and power; and by by finding humane, non-discriminatory ways to  voluntarily, radically reduce human numbers and per-capita footprint. In such a post-civilization world, we could once again live healthy, happy, low-stress, untraumatized lives.

In the meantime, how can we help each other to cope better, without desensitizing ourselves? The bookstores are full of ‘self-help’ books, and psychologists offer various therapies (pharmacological and other) to this end. I have little confidence in any of these. We know far too little about how our brains and bodies work to be able to adapt ourselves well to a high-stress, high-trauma world. Most solutions from these sources seem to me more likely to desensitize us further, and at best will do so in ways that will make us less likely to hurt others. I’m not sure that there is any solution to this problem. Can we really hope to think or learn our way past it, when so little of what we are and do is conscious? Besides meditation and other relaxation/awareness techniques, besides loving and supporting and reassuring and encouraging each other, what methods have you found that keep you truly sane: able to cope, while still open, sensitive, caring?

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6 Responses to Coping, Insensitively

  1. Zach says:

    I suggest learning about irrational belief patterns. Things like awfulizing, minimizing the positives, and overgeneralization, etc. I’ve found that to be most helpful. Thought creates emotion, not the other way around. For example, if we believe the world is an awful place to live we won’t be very happy about living in the world.

  2. Mike Fried says:

    “Can we really hope to think or learn our way past it…”I’m afraid that the tendency towards “the accumulation of wealth and power” is Darwinian in itself. And coping is closely related to this in so many ways.As individuals we can get over the tendency but it will still produce much angst (again, in many ways) when continuing to live in the world where it’s the norm.

  3. Zephyr says:

    I am very much against that ideology which sayspeople are the pawns of their upbringing. Everyperson has to take responsibility for changinghis own life. He can’t do that while dwelling onthe past, and drawing up a schematic of apologiesfor his current habits, explaining that they arethe results of his upbringing. That’s a very fatalisticapproach to life.Certainly, parents are responsible to understandthe effects of different parenting techniques onchildren. You do see, statistically, that dilemmas occur when you watch children grow up undera foolish and egregious parenting regime. But, I wouldn’t view that as a default course for a human life. The problems people experience result from immaturity,and a poorly formed conceptual world. There’s no answerto be found in bemoaning those things, which ought to rather be water under the bridge, in our own lives.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Zephyr: My sense is that our actions are generally driven by short-term necessity, not by responsibility and strategic thinking. And what we are is the product of our genes, our early upbringing, and how those actions we take shape us. That’s Darwinian, and there is no escaping it. I don’t much believe in higher consciousness. We are what we are, what we sense and what we do, much more than what we think.

  5. Zephyr says:

    Dave, Do you not realize that the biological theory of thehuman personality and mind is quite a fatalistic way tolook at people?Human beings are not machines. Computers followinstructions, and they can, by definition, have no freewill. Computers look at each bit and each letter in a lineof instructions. Human beings look at context – the minddraws ideas together – it’s a pattern assembler.Do first decade psychologists in the european derivativenations understand the mind? There is a quote I like a lotfrom the philosopher Aristotle, written in his thirdchapter of his book: “Posterior Analytics”: Here he says,if I may paraphrase, that if scientists have a theory thatis put together out of inference, without a logical visibleconnection described between parts a b and c – then, thetheory is invalid.The models which you present, Dave, are a collection ofinferences, built with studies of statistics. You areignoring the important task of explaining exactly how eachgear of the machine works, in relation to the others.Instead, you are looking at the machine from a distance,and theorizing how those gears might turn.Personally, I believe that there is no mature study of thehuman mind in the european world. Why is this myimpression? Look at the english language. You can see howwe have a vague word for one scope of activity in the mind- “reasoning.” We have a second vague word for the verydifferent form of activity – “intuition.” But, there areabsolutely no words we have, in our language, to describeall the specific actions and experiences in the middle,between these two vaguely described things. Thatlinguistical observation alone, I believe, is proof thatour society has not done an earnest study of the humanmind.Your models do not describe me, nor anyone I know. A human being is something with potential, with a will, with a course that he or she can take in life. What is thatglisten in a child’s eyes? It is a glance into the depthsof his or her potential.What is potential? Potential, intimately involves suchissues as life course, and choice, and world view. Yourmodels, I would say, downplay the importance of suchthings.More specifically, I don’t believe that our minds arebiological things. Our brains are the control centers ofall the organs within our bodies – our kidneys, our heart,our digestion; enzymes and hormones are all distributedbased on the clockwork spinning in the brain. We think ofour minds as being in our heads, only because our mostdetailed physical sense is there – our lensed eyeballs;.There were other eras where the human soul was thought toreside in the chest – thus, we have the poetry about “theheart” of a human being.

  6. Bob the Chef says:

    Zephyr makes an interesting point. However, it is unclear to me whether he is a dualist (which I am not). The mind, as an action, is a product of the brain. However, it need not be physical. (Aside: in the Thomist sense, we do not *have* bodies or minds, we are bodies and minds). This blog post is quite a concoction of political hoo-hah. It plays on notions currently made sensitive to the masses by the media, and taught as undeniable in the public schools. It makes a whole host of claims laid on some notions of morality and ethics with no source or substance to them. Dave is at once denying “good” and “evil” (which I now use in the magical voodoo sense given to them in the secular order) and asserting some personal notions of good and evil as if they were somehow undeniable “Truths”. Relativism does not permit these kinds of assertions, and the emotional intensity with which the statements come off with become unjustified and absurd.It should also be noted that Darwinism has become a magic word, an unquestionable dogma, that is used and abused by people with political agendas (such as, apparently, the author of this blog). Darwinism is both a philosophy and a biological model (two very distinct things). The former makes stupid swathes of the blog post; the latter is irrelevant to the blog post, and is dead as a scientific theory (see Gould) because of its inadequacy in explaining evolution.

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