Healing From Trauma in the Time of Collapse

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image by Midjourney AI; not my prompt

Recently, some mostly right-wing opinionators* have been tut-tutting about the extensive research that suggests that long-term, even generational trauma underlies much of the violence and hatred we see playing out in the world today. Their argument seems to be that war, violence and cruelty have always been with us, and so it makes no sense to argue that we are, as a species, any more traumatized than we have been in centuries past. Their implication is that past generations were just more self-disciplined and hence better behaved than we are.

Of course, they’re entitled to their opinion, and since studies of human behaviour lack the rigour of scientific evidence, it’s hard to prove them wrong. I cannot speak about the experience of previous generations — it may be that in the past, religion, political and social indoctrination, and other forms of conditioning made humans more self-restrained and self-censoring, sublimating and turning their trauma inward instead of expressing it outwardly in acts of violence, except behind closed doors.

But if you believe, as I do, that our behaviour is simply the reflection of our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of the moment, then the expression of our internal trauma (a form of mental illness) through external acts of physical and psychological violence would seem almost tautological. If our species has been rendered pathological by the stresses and traumas of living in a horrifically fast-changing, perilous, brutal, scarcity-plagued, uncertain, disconnected, insensitive, unfathomable, seemingly out-of-control and massively over-crowded and fragile civilization, it only makes sense that that pathology would be manifested in acts of brutal cruelty, extreme hatred, violence, war, and genocide as this civilization falls over the brink into collapse.

One of the whipping-boys of the opinionators is the idea (of psychologists) that to prevent early trauma, humans need, in early childhood, a sense of secure attachment (to their mothers, primarily, but also to their ‘tribe’ and to the place where they ‘belong’), and also need the ability to be their authentic selves and to relate to other people authentically.

Secure attachment from infancy means, in substance, that you know you will be cared for and looked after, and that you will therefore develop the capacity and the belief in the importance of caring for and looking after others. Authenticity means that when you are asked something, you are not afraid to tell the truth, and not afraid to say what you really believe, out of fear of adverse consequences for doing so.

Secure attachment enables the development of trust and mutuality, self-confidence, and connection to others, and is arguably a prerequisite to genuinely caring about other people and the world. Authenticity enables the development of a coherent sense of identity, beliefs and worldview, and comfort in your sense of who you are and where and how you stand in relation to others and the world.

“Nonsense,” say the opinionators. “All it requires is a bit of backbone, self-control, and a strong moral upbringing to overcome not having these things in early childhood. No need to baby people to have them behave decently.”

In this short video, Gabor Maté summarizes the counter-argument to this. “Trauma is not what happens to you,” he says, “trauma is what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you.” In this video, he explains how what happened inside you (often as a result of your lack of attachment or incapacity for authenticity in early childhood) will get triggered for the rest of your life when an incident occurs that reminds you in any way of what provoked that traumatic feeling inside you. It hence becomes part of your conditioning. The result can be pathological behaviour — constant neurotic feelings of abandonment, inadequacy, profound distrust, betrayal, and extreme suppression of emotions, leading to acts of hatred, cruelty, and violence.

This traumatizing ‘feeling inside of you’ that happened in early childhood is, Gabor explains, actually a coping mechanism, a survival technique, and is your body’s way of recognizing and alerting you about a danger or hurt, so you can supposedly ‘deal’ with it. But if you grow up not being allowed to accept yourself, listen to your ‘gut’ feelings, or express yourself authentically, you may be left with no way to deal with this hurt, so it just festers. “If your ‘survival’ depends on you being a certain way (pathological, inauthentic, dishonest, suppressing your feelings), you’re not going to give it up that easily”.

A lot of Gabor’s interviews have titles about ‘how’ to ‘heal’ from a lack of attachment or authenticity stemming from your earliest childhood. But what he talks about is not a process, but rather a sustained practice developing self-awareness about what it was that, in any particular stressful situation in your life, provoked an angry, sad, or fearful response in you, and what childhood trigger underlay that response, which is rarely related to what actually occurred in that moment. And if you can recognize that it was childhood trauma being triggered and not actually the events of the current moment that produced your reaction, you can then, he says, start to understand and heal from it.

I’m not sure where I stand on the possibility of (self-)healing from the effects of trauma. I think for some of us, though not by any means all of us, our conditioning might equip us to be sufficiently self-aware to heal. But I can accept that it is this triggering of childhood trauma that underlies and enables the ferocious emotional reaction that leads to the (uniquely human) propensity to commit the acts of cruelty, abuse, hatred, violence, war, and genocide that we see everywhere in the world today.

And those suffering from severe trauma who are also in positions of power (and sociopaths often seem to seek power as a futile means of gaining control over their seemingly out-of-control lives), will exploit this knowledge of how trauma works and can be triggered, to ‘deliberately’ (though they actually have no choice over their behaviour) provoke a traumatized response in others — to foment a mob into furious violence, an army into war, or a nation into hate and extremism, for example — by playing on others’ deeply-entrenched anger, fear, and sadness, triggering the emotional response born of internal trauma in each of us.

So I look at the profoundly pathological behaviours of Biden, Trump, Netanyahu, Zelenskyy, and Putin, for example, and I can kind of see how their seemingly irrational behaviour might easily be the result of conditioned, reflexive, trauma-invoked behaviours, responses and triggers stemming from early childhood. And I can see how these men could, given their situations, have likewise been prone to provoke angry, fearful, grief-stricken responses in their colleagues and in their many followers, that have led to such horrific acts of violence by all of them.

Like these sociopathic men, we are all conditioned, and in our species, sadly, it seems much of our conditioning is complicated by trauma, and much of our behaviour therefore ends up being the acting out of that trauma.

Our brutal, frenzied, precarious, disconnected civilization has inevitably, I think, created an environment and circumstances that preclude most of us from developing a sense of secure attachment and a capacity for authenticity when we are young. And the result is that almost all of us have been, I think, to a lesser or greater degree, traumatized and made mentally ill. The desperation that will inevitably accompany the deepening collapse of this civilization may make that situation considerably worse.

In the meantime, some of us, at least, might, through self-awareness of our feelings and what is really triggering them, heal ourselves somewhat from our own personal trauma. That healing will be pretty important in determining what our collective conditioned responses will be to the polycrisis of civilizational collapse. The more of us who are able to keep our wits about us, and not fall victim to the very human propensity to be triggered by, and act out, our trauma, in much of what we do, the better we are likely to cope as a species on the long way down.

* I kinda like this term. I find it applies across the political spectrum to people who offer nothing to a debate or discussion except their personal uninformed or misinformed opinion (or that of someone whose opinions they parrot uncritically), and who mistake righteous indignation for passionate argument. Almost all of what passes for relevant discussion in the mainstream media (notably the op-eds) and in social media is, IMO, nothing but opinionating. But that’s just my opinion.

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7 Responses to Healing From Trauma in the Time of Collapse

  1. Vera says:

    On rereading this, I am reflecting that we seem to be divided in that some seek to pinpoint “why” some humans do harmful things. And others, accepting that the understanding of intentions (even our own!) ranges from iffy to wrong to impossible, are mostly focused on deeds and consequences. I find the second path much more productive. The first path tends to degenerate into making excuses.

    When I read Heinberg’s article Can we save the world without free will, I noted he follows the first path. He says: “focusing on the causes of violent or antisocial behavior instead of fulfilling a desire for punishment will allow us to adopt more humane and effective practices and policies.”

    Will it?

    I have seen this approach to lead to frequent stress on the terrible childhoods of psychopaths. Violent psychopaths get a lot of mileage out of stressing how terrible their childhood was; most of the time, their stories don’t check out. Reality is different. Psychopaths come from loving, stable families as well as the opposite kind. So do prosocial people.

    There is no need to fall into either/or thinking. It need not be, endlessly digging for causes vs nasty punishments. I am for a whole other approach.

  2. Peter Webb says:

    The work of Gabor Mate, Peter Levine and Somatic experiencing, Thomas Hubl are wonderful ‘method’s to help witness people who have been traumatised. (basically most of us. Because of the way that competition is taught to us since early in life, most are wary of confiding their ‘secrets’er pain with others, which would be one of the most normal or simple solutions to our woes. “Just be a man and get on with it”was what I use to hear from my fatherland at the school and university it was an on-going train of the fight of the fittest rather than a socially healthy sharing of thoughts, feelings and intuitive ideas. So yes we have problems now as a natural selection process for Narcisists and psychopaths has been accelerating since the 70’s when efficiency was fuelled by computers, and speed of globalisation. Honest sharing of feelings and wounds from the past, doesn’t just happen; it needs a space of empathy for all of us to share; individually or even in small groups. A natural social animal behaviour which humanity has bypassed in the name of fame and fortune. Thanks for your post

  3. Vera says:

    Didn’t Pinker write a while back that violence peaked in the 17th century, and we have it hunky dory?

  4. Joe Clarkson says:

    “Our brutal, frenzied, precarious, disconnected civilization has inevitably, I think, created an environment and circumstances that preclude most of us from developing a sense of secure attachment and a capacity for authenticity when we are young. And the result is that almost all of us have been, I think, to a lesser or greater degree, traumatized and made mentally ill.”

    Wow! I didn’t know that life in Canada was so horrific. I figured it was fairly similar to life in the US or any other rich country. I’m truly sorry that all you’ve seen is endless trauma.

    I grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the US in the 50s and 60s. Most of the public school classmates I socialized with seemed pretty untraumatized to me then and still do. I’ve lived all over the world, from the Pacific islands to the Middle East, and found very few people to be mentally ill. Everywhere I’ve been, most people have been decent folk and pleasant to be with. It’s hard to believe that I just happened to encounter the tiny minority of people who missed being part of the “almost all of us” cohort, but perhaps I’ve just been lucky.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Huh. That’s interesting, Joe. I am not suggesting that most people are miserable and emotionally incapacitated. I am suggesting that we all suffer to some degree from trauma, and that much of that trauma stems from lack of secure attachment and capacity to discover and be one’s authentic self. And that trauma is “acted out” in the world, mostly in petty acts but too often in acts of cruelty, abuse and violence, including wars. I think that’s an inherently and uniquely human condition, which I suspect is brought about by the malaise of perceiving and believing ourselves to be separate from everything else and in possession of free will. The very sense of believing ourselves to be apart from, and in opposition to and in competition with, the rest of life on earth is, I believe, intrinsically traumatizing.

    One of the most interesting statements in Robert Sapolsky’s latest is his argument that humans, uniquely, are never entirely satisfied with their lot, that there’s this ubiquitous drive to want more and more, if not for ourselves then for our descendants. (He’s sees this as what underlies the acquisitiveness that has led us to the edge of collapse.)

    That reminds me of the classical study that showed that people who’d become paraplegic and people who’d won major lottery prizes were, one year afterwards, equally happy/unhappy. It suggests to me the flip-side of Robert’s argument: that we can ‘get used’ to a huge amount of struggling and suffering in our lives, and consider that ‘normal’. We can become oblivious to the trauma we carry inside us, and to the commensurate violence it triggers in us, usually only occasionally, but sometimes pathologically.

    That trauma doesn’t render us dysfunctional, and we may well see ourselves as genuinely happy. Though I’ve known both abusers and abused people who see themselves that way. But it does make us vulnerable. And when it’s triggered, which it can be all too easily, we can quickly become consumed with rage, hatred, and fear that manifests in the staggering violence we see, not only in war zones, but in ‘everyday’ behaviour, most of it behind closed doors, and in our willingness to want to ‘punish’ those we see as having done something ‘wrong’, with acts of violence, much of it institutional and military.

  6. Renaee says:

    the ability of the trauma to remain hidden is probably the most crucial part in terms of it being damaging. The process of becoming aware of what was done to oneself, and the distancing and self awareness that follow afterward, are what is needed to be free of it and not inflict it on your offspring. Alice Miller, in her book ‘For your own good’ describes a passage from a child rearing manual from the late 19th century, that she sees influenced the war generations directly. she writes:

    Two passages from Dr. Schreber’s advice to parents, written in 1858, will illustrate the method of raising children prevalent at the time: “The little ones’ displays of temper as indicated by screaming or crying without cause should be regarded as the first test of your spiritual and pedagogical principles … . Once you have established that nothing is really wrong, that the child is not ill, distressed, or in pain, then you can rest assured that the screaming is nothing more than an outburst of temper, a whim, the first appearance of wilfulness. Now you should no longer simply wait for it to pass as you did in the beginning but should proceed in a somewhat more positive way: by quickly diverting its attention, by stern words, threatening gestures, rapping on the bed … or if none of this helps, by appropriately mild corporal admonitions repeated persistently at brief intervals until the child quiets down or falls asleep.

    This procedure will be necessary only once or at most twice, and then you will be master of the child forever. From now on, a glance, a word, a single threatening gesture will be sufficient to control the child. Remember that this will be greatest benefit to your child since it will spare him many hours of agitation inimicable to his successful growth, freeing him from all those inner torments that can, moreover, very easily lead to a proliferation of pernicious character traits that will become increasingly difficult to conquer.”

    She then goes on to explain how this kind of ‘child rearing’, practiced by enough of the population, laid the groundwork for society wide violence to emerge as it did in WWII Germany.

    “If treatment of this sort is carried through consistently enough and early enough, then all the requirements will have been met to enable a citizen to live in a dictatorship without minding it; he or she will even be able to feel a euphoric identification with it, as happened in the Hitler period”

    “If the child learns to view corporal punishment as “a necessary measure” against “wrongdoers,” then as an adult he will attempt to protect himself from punishment by being obedient and will not hesitate to cooperate with the penal system. In a totalitarian state, which is a mirror of his upbringing, this citizen can also carry out any form of torture or persecution without having a guilty conscience. His “will” is completely identical with that of the government.”

    Excerpt From: Alice Miller. “For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence.” Apple Books.

    The whole book is basically an investigation into the origins of violence and the blame is put squarely at the feet of parents and child rearing techniques.

    I think the types of people you mention that are in power now, most likely had this kind of up bringing behind closed doors, but as Vera notes, not always. I think what can happen is the society/culture itself can take over this role and operate in much the same way with a ‘for your own good’ mentality if you get particularly unlucky with the influences in your life as you grow up.

    But I think the early years are of massive importance and it can be extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible, for some people to break free of their influence. And yet within this, there are always those individuals and families who could directly resist the pull of the culture and violence around them, and we hear those sorts of stories from war and dictatorships shine through, of people acting with extreme kindness and valour. I reckon on the way down with collapse, there will be all manner of behaviour on display, from the very worst of humanity to the very best.

  7. Renaee says:

    One more thing to add, with your comment about Sapolsky saying that humans uniquely are never entirely satisfied with their lot, I remember another book where the author talked about a study done in the 1980s (when psychologists turned their attention away from pathology and toward what makes people happy as a means of study) and they did this really basic study of asking a number of people, as certain times through out the day, and for weeks on end, how happy are you right now on a scale of one to ten, and after getting all the data back and looking at it, they concluded regardless of who they were and what events happened in life, everyone eventually always went back to self reporting of a ‘seven’ out of ten – that is to say, there was always room for improvement on the whole. Sometimes it would go up or down depending on what happened, but always come back to seven. (and this is what RS was talking about i gather) I got the Sapolsky book for Christmas – so am looking forward to diving in when I finish my current one :-)

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