(Yesterday I attended a Zoom class looking at the Ukraine situation through the lens of trauma. It was enlightening, ennobling, inspiring and necessary and like the best classes, sparked off further thinking. Here is my attempt to summarize the ideas that came up for me.)
Nature knows what it’s doing. The brainstem, that reptilian bottom layer of the brain, mostly knows three things— fight, flight or freeze. In a dangerous world, these are necessary strategies for survival. In the face of danger, we instinctively either fight to protect ourselves, flee from the danger or freeze or hide. In these short-term dangers, our body is flooded with hormones to assist us so we might fight more fiercely or run faster or hide more effectively. When the danger passes, the body re-balances itself, the flood of hormones resumes to a small, steady stream and the animal in us is ready to resume its daily patterns. But the human in us, endowed with memory, imagination and emotion that all reside in the upper regions of the brain, may carry some remembered trauma from the event. The experience may echo on in nightmares or get triggered by other situations and we may need some help to integrate these extreme emotions so they don’t dominate our consciousness.
Since they live in our cellular memory, we can’t simply wish them away. They are with us always. But we can grow larger to diminish their hold on us, grow a community of actual people and inner beings that reduce their threat and give us comfort, support and healing. We can respond consciously to the trauma, bring it up into the higher regions of our brain and endow it with the light of understanding and the warmth of a kind of loving acceptance.
The trouble starts when we stay hunkered down in the basement of the brain, either building bombs, taking drugs or cowering in fear. In short, relying on the short term strategies of the brain stem for long-term solutions. What do each of these look like?
FIGHT: One symptom of the fight response is unrelenting anger, lashing out in situations that don’t call for such extreme responses. Screaming at the car who changes into your lane or yelling at the kids when they spill milk or just carrying around an angry aura that creates an atmosphere for others of constant tiptoeing tension, never knowing when someone is going to lash out. It keeps everyone on guard, unable to fully trust or relax into a situation knowing that the vicious dog of anger may jump out from around the corner and not knowing how long the leash is.
The anger-response is also a way of projecting all the difficulties in the world out on to groups of people who you label as “other.” The fighter-persona is thus vulnerable to demagogues who blame others for their troubles— it’s the immigrants or the Muslims or the Democrats or the government itself. It excuses people from any self-reflection, from taking responsibility for their own life and inner state. It becomes a means to avoid looking at their own traumas, of which the general trauma is often the way a family, church, school, peer group or overall culture refused to see the person’s potential and inner beauty and ignored them or put them down or bullied them or dismissed them.
All these people and institutions causing such damage were themselves ignored or bullied or abused or shamed and were simply passing down that undigested trauma. For all the necessary political reactions and analysis of the people who stormed the Capitol, the uninterrupted passing down the baton of unintegrated trauma and then creating new layers is not on the discussion table. These are people who are causing much damage, often gleefully and with the full consent and encouragement of Fox News. But they are also people who need help. While it is imperative that they go to prison for such heinous crimes, nothing will change when they come out unless prisons themselves become institutions of traumatic healing. Which some, like San Quentin, are beginning to consider.
Whether the puppets of demagogues or the demagogues themselves, the fighter response to trauma is deeply dangerous and destructive, a toxic response that kills, maims and destroys innocent people. Witness the current Ukraine invasion.
FLIGHT: The flight response causes more damage to the individual than to others, but any refusal to integrate trauma hurts us all.
One level to the flight response is the attempt to push the trauma away, choose not to think about it or talk about it. Yet both because we cannot control our own thoughts and the trauma is imbedded permanently in our cells, this simply is not possible. It creates an atmosphere in the air of constant tension, the children in the family never knowing what questions they’re allowed to ask. Or quickly learning what topics to avoid. This habit of purposeful denial became (is?) a national habit. In the book, The Black Dog of Fate, the Armenian author tells of how his parents and grandparents never said a word to him about the Armenian Holocaust, theoretically to “protect him.” And then on the other side of the coin, Turkish children were never told about it or told it never happened to protect their own sense of national identity, an identity that couldn’t face its own shame. Of course, our deep silence around the actual brutalities of Native American genocide and African slavery in the United States is part of the fruitless strategy of fleeing from the pain by refusing to look at it or pretending it didn’t happen or whitewashing it into something palatable.
On a personal level, another big strategy of the flight response is the escape into alcohol or drugs. Watch any old American movie and the moment trouble comes, the hero doesn’t go to the therapist or support group or drumming circle. He goes to the bar. And surprise, when he wakes up hungover, the trouble is still there. Only doubled now if the cycle continues all the way to alcoholism or drug addiction. The statistics of both increasing in our current time of collective trauma is a massive, wide-scale flight- into- oblivion response.
Naturally, the alcoholics or opiate-addicted or crack addicts are themselves the most affected. But the damage spreads to their family and friends and colleagues and children and once again, by withdrawing themselves from participating in the healing of trauma, they are allowing it to continue unchecked.
FREEZE: The third short-term strategy turned to long-term-destructive habit is the freeze response, the sense of being overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the pain and numbing oneself to be able to withstand it. Such numbness and shut-down manifests as depression, that sense of being unable to move in one direction or another. Aided by denial, the refusal to lift the weight of suffering means feeling helpless as we feel it press down on us. Again, we may resort to drugs as short-term solutions that become long-term addictions or spend hours in the therapists room feeling it all as our own personal failings rather than (or alongside) the collective reality of life under the heaviness of the daily news that we’re all trying to cope with. At any rate, statistics seem to indicate a rise in diagnosed depression, which at its most extreme can lead to suicide, a statistic also rising.
Like the flight response, the undigested pain tends to turn more inward and hurt the individual and the surrounding community of family and friends than outward harming innocent people, but again, its dead-end path leads us all away from the healing, both individual and collective, that we need.
What to do? Stay tuned for Part II.