PTSD: A Nation Suffering From Continued Trauma
PTSD: A Nation Suffering From Continued Trauma

PTSD: A Nation Suffering From Continued Trauma

I know I’m not the only one who didn’t miss there being a continual litany of mass shootings during the past year. One of the few benefits to everything, and everyone, being locked down was that there were no large gatherings where anyone could shoot at people. What the events of the past two weeks seem to be telling us is that our national trigger finger was getting itchy. States had barely started talking about easing restrictions when BOOM, we have two significant shootings one week right after the other. Neither makes a lick of sense, they never do, and the useless response of politicians has become so predictable we can pretty much start quoting sources before they have a chance to speak. 

There are a number of worrisome points to the entire situation and one of those at the top of the list is the danger that these traumatic events become so frequent that our minds begin to glaze over the important details, such as the lives that are lost. The victims of this week’s shooting in Boulder, Colorado, ranged in age from 20 to 65. None were expecting that an act as simple as buying groceries or going to work would bring the end of their lives. No one ever does. 

51-year-old Terri Liker has worked at the King Sooper store for over 30 years. On this particular morning, she was in one of her favorite positions bagging groceries. She loved the people who shopped there and doing things for them.

25-year-old Rikki Olds had finally moved out on her own thanks to her position as front-end manager at the store. The oldest of three siblings, she was raised by her grandparents and stopped regularly to check on them.

Denny Strong was the youngest victim at 20. He had worked at the store since he was in high school. He dreamed of becoming a pilot and was working extra shifts to save money for fuel. Interestingly enough, he was also a strong gun rights advocate.

Former New York photo director Lynn Murray was at the store filling an Instacart order. She enjoyed the less-hectic pace of life in Boulder. Her two adult children remember how she doted on them and made them the best Halloween costumes.

61-year-old Kevin Mahoney was a former Chief Operating Officer in the hotel industry and the father of Erika Mahoney, news director for KUZA public radio. She posted pictures of him smiling as he walked her down the aisle at her wedding last summer and spoke of his excitement over her pregnancy.

23-year-old Nevin Stanisic was the son of Serbian refugees who moved here hoping to escape the violence of their home country. Nevin was in the store repairing machines at the Starbucks, often working with and alongside his father, but his father was not with him that day.

Suzanne Fountain, 59, was known to her neighbors as an avid gardener who always shared her excess. She was especially proud of a peach tree she had planted. When not gardening, Ms. Fountain helped people turning 65 navigate their way through all the forms and paperwork they needed to file.

Lonna Bartkowiak managed her sister’s boutique, Umba, where she sold yoga and festival wear. She enjoyed attending festivals such as Burning Man and had recently become engaged. She had only gone to the store to pick up a prescription when the shooting began. She was 49.

Boulder Police Officer Eric Talley has gotten plenty of attention as the first officer on the scene, shot before backup had a chance to arrive. The father of seven might be best remembered as one of three officers recorded rescuing a duck and her ducklings from a sewer drain last year. His wife says he was actively looking for a new job that wouldn’t put him in so much danger.

65-year-old Jody Waters was a long-time businesswoman in the Boulder area who was well known for the boutique she ran and her friendly, out-going personality. She was also known for having a strong sense of style and helping customers find the right accessories for a wardrobe.

Each of these people was busy with their lives. They had dreams. They had plans for this weekend. They had friends and family who looked forward to seeing them. As the victims of last week’s shooting in Atlanta and every other mass shooting in the United States, there was no justifiable reason for them to lose their lives. Pursuing the shooter’s motivation has never helped because it is always irrelevant to the lives lost.

And for all their families, and their communities, and their cities, and the nation, another trauma point has been inflicted, another reason to jump when we hear a sudden sound, another source of stress, another reason to worry when someone we care about is a few minutes late. These events affect us all, and we all need help surviving them.

Has The Whole World Gone Crazy?

I want you to think for a moment and answer some questions about yourself. Thinking in terms of the past month, even as we’re looking hopefully at the possibility we may be able to meet with friends this summer, would you say that you’ve had more trouble than usual remembering things? Not just the frequent “what did I come into this room for” type of memory loss, but forgetting appointments, the names of people you know well, or how to prepare a favorite meal? 

How’s your temper? Do you find yourself snapping at things, especially family, more frequently and over smaller indiscretions, or perhaps no indiscretion at all?

What about sudden drops in your mood, to the point, in some cases, that you’re actually depressed and thinking we might never get out of this?

Has your productivity been on a roller coaster? Do you start your day excited about a project only to find yourself lagging a few minutes later? Or maybe you are uncharacteristically morose in that morning zoom meeting but then have a burst of energy and get a lot done the moment all those screens go away.

Are you confused? Scared about going out and being social?

Welcome to the global trauma that the year-long pandemic has brought to all of us. I found it interesting when I started looking to discover that yes, everything we’ve experienced together for the past year can legitimately be diagnosed as trauma, the kind that leads to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is defined in the DSM-5 as “Persistent, distorted cognitions about the cause or consequences of the traumatic event(s) that lead the individual to blame himself/herself or others. Persistent negative emotional state (e.g., fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame). Markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities.

Many of us can see ourselves in that definition, in the way we talk about the virus and our response to it. The virus overtook the world because someone failed, whether it was an organization, a government, or a specific individual. As a result, we’re afraid to go out in public, especially if people aren’t keeping their distance and wearing masks. For millions of people, our interest in social activities has flown out the window and it may never completely return. We’re also angry that it’s not getting better, faster, and when we see spring breakers in Miami acting carelessly in a way that could start yet another wave of the disease, we may feel a need to lash out.

Christine Runyan, a clinical psychologist and professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, was talking with On Being’s Krista Tippett a couple of weeks ago, prior to either shooting, explaining this particular phenomenon, PTSD not just on an individual level, but national, and perhaps global. She starts by reminding us of our body’s autonomic nervous system, that piece of our being that generates the “fight or flight” response to a perceived threat, and then the following response of the parasympathetic nervous system that helps us relax when a threat is perceived to be eliminated. The space between the two is a point of balance, and that window, she says, “does get quite disrupted, for example, for people who’ve had prior trauma, that window really shrinks, and so you can activate this nervous system at lower levels. And that’s one of the things that … has been happening throughout this whole year, for various reasons, both related to the virus and related to our social circumstances in this country.” 

As a result, we begin to feel like there’s never a break. We’re constantly going from threat to pseudo-resolution, to new threat, to maybe a new solution, and in the space between, that point of balance, we freeze. We reach what Dr. Runyan refers to as a “state of apathy, of detachment, of even disembodied or dissociative, and numbing, a lot of numbing… And it’s a protective stance. There’s a lot of protection there. And anybody who is at risk of depression has previous depression, it can be a scary place to be… because it’s like, oh, is that coming back?”

So, here we are, frozen between fight or flight and resolution, caught in what is starting to feel like a permanent state of depression and anxiety, lacking sufficient revenue or insurance to pay for the therapy we all need. And then, on top of everything else, as something resembling normal appears on the horizon, we are reminded of how horrible that normal could be. Two mass shootings, eight killed one week and ten the next, and we sense that there’s no resolution coming, ever. Politicians make the same argument they always do and in the end, nothing substantial is ever done. 

If we’re going to fix this mass state of trauma, this global PTSD, then we might have to consider that our first responsibility is to care for ourselves and our own mental well-being. Interestingly enough, that’s something philosophers and teachers have been trying to tell us for centuries. We’re just not very good at listening.

Certain Things Have Come To Light

I opened an overnight message from a young friend one morning this week to find a picture of Dr. Sigmund Freud. “You totally look like him,” she said. I wasn’t too sure how to take that. Many of Dr. Freud’s theories and methods have been put into question and rendered invalid over the past several years even while others hold steadfastly to his teachings. And he wore funny ties, though that was more a period thing. 

What Freud did do for generalized society, however, is create in our minds this concept of therapy, the need to look for assistance in getting to the root of our problem. While Dr. Freud’s methods were unique and sometimes questionable, the progressive evolution of his ideas has brought us to what we now call “self-care,” a term that was already present but has exploded over the past twelve months. We can’t get to a therapist, we can’t sit in the pub or bar with friends, or in some cases even get together with family who would normally help us talk through everything we’re feeling. We’ve had to learn to care for ourselves.

This isn’t a new place for humanity, though. Evolutionary psychology, which is what you get if you invite Darwin and Freud over for drinks, makes the argument that the genes that define our nervous system are the result of evolution and that our behavior now is influenced by inherited factors, both ancient and contemporary. Our evolutionary “home base,” as it were, was the African Savannah, where we lived in groups of roughly 100 people. Food was sufficient, weather was predictable, and dangers were relatively limited. When that changed some 20,000 years or so ago, our brains then began to evolve in order to adapt to the loss of that environment. And even as our thought processes and actions have changed, our instinctive basis is to try to get us back to the conditions of the Savannah, where things were safe and our needs were met.

The late cartoonist Charles M. Schulz once said, “I think I’ve discovered the secret of life—you just hang around until you get used to it.” Certainly, that’s part of getting through this seemingly perpetual state of trauma and getting used to and coming to grips with the fact that we’re in a perpetual state of trauma. Evolutionarily speaking, it’s like we’re constantly running from a big cat who wants to make us its lunch. The running never seems to end, but eventually, you get used to it and it becomes our way of life.

That doesn’t feel like self-care, though, does it? We want something that makes us feel better, that somehow convinces us that this trauma we’re experiencing isn’t so bad, that everyone has nightmares like this, and that sooner or later we’re all going to wake up, back on our proverbial savannah, and that everything is going to be okay.

Real self-care, though, involves a more poignant change in our state of mind, one that helps us realize that what’s going on inside our minds is the key to understanding, and ultimately changing what happens in our greater world.

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu wrote: 

“Close your mouth,
block off your senses,
blunt your sharpness,
untie your knots,
soften your glare,
settle your dust.
This is the primal identity.” 

He also wrote:

Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

Self-care, the beginning of the end of this perpetual trauma, starts when we separate ourselves from the trauma and stop becoming part of it. We have attached ourselves to our corporate trauma through social media and its endless doom scrolling, constantly watching for the latest updates to the news, setting our cell phones so that we get notifications when the stock market dips, or the president speaks, or there’s a new COVID-19 update. As long as we continue that behavior, we keep ourselves emersed in the trauma. Nothing is going to improve. We’re not going to feel any better. There is always going to be something or someone out there to trigger our fears and anxiety, stimulate our autonomic system, and keep us frozen, unable to find a resolution.

Howard Bloom wrote in The Lucifer Principle, “Progress is possible only when people believe in the possibilities of growth and change. Races or tribes die out not just when they are conquered and suppressed but when they accept their defeated condition, become despairing, and lose their excitement about the future.

Self-care doesn’t begin, our path out of this hell is obscured for the duration of our insistence that we hold on to this trauma, that we participate in its revolving state of fear. If we want the trauma to end, we have to stop feeding it.

How Does All This Add Up?

So, where’s the concrete? What are the five steps to… whatever? There’s got to be a neatly-wrapped package that fits on a plaque or maybe a framable cross-stitch that sums up all we’ve discussed and puts a nice end on it. Right?

Dr. Runyan, getting back to that conversation, said, “[The] nervous system dysregulation is the source of where all of these other behavioral manifestations are coming. And we’re all patterned in different ways, and a lot of that has to do with, what were the ways we met stress as a kid? How did we learn how to meet stress in a way to stay safe, as a kid? And, unexamined, those just continue to show up through our lives. And so not everybody manifests in the exact same way, because of that patterning and those histories, particularly if left unexamined, but you can certainly find plenty of people who are responding to that activation in a way that meets aggression, rigidity in thinking, getting very myopic in perspective, and not having much cognitive flexibility to share anybody else’s perspective or ideas. And so you have a massive loss of empathy. Massive loss of empathy.

When we look at the problem of mass shootings, the solution to that issue ultimately isn’t much different than the solution to our global PTSD. Yes, some form of increased gun control is probably going to help. Making it difficult for people to buy and use guns the same day is going to eliminate at least a portion of those shootings committed in the midst of a delusional episode. That’s addressing a symptom, though, not the cause. Taking a Xanax to calm our anxiety may momentarily help calm us down so we can think more clearly, but it doesn’t remove the cause of the anxiety.

To address the anxiety and depression means facing the trauma head-on. We need to feel that there is some path back to that Savannah our evolutionary minds feel is a safe place, where our needs are met and we’re not constantly running in fear. The problem isn’t just a pandemic or mass shootings. The problem is that for the past 20,000 years we have lived from crisis to crisis and the only thing that’s changed is the nature of the crisis. We went through one bloody hell of an election season last year, that’s yet another crisis feeding the trauma. We have to find a way out of this self-perpetuating PTSD-inducing existence.

Doing that means looking back at the conditions of the Savannah that made it attractive. First, there was sufficient food. 23.5 million people in the United States live in food deserts. Nearly a billion people around the world have insufficient access to a reliable source of food. Nearly two billion people don’t have access to clean water and sanitation. Drop everything else, focus on solving this issue, and every other symptom of trauma around the world, from crime to disease to political unrest, will dramatically decrease. It won’t go away, but the incidents will decrease considerably. 

Second, the weather was stable. We’ve known for the bulk of my life that climate change was destroying our liveable environment and chose to do little to nothing about it. The Paris Climate Agreement is a start in the right direction, but not every country is on course to meet the goals set for 2030 and there are plenty of scientists concerned that even if the targets are met, it’s not enough. We need to more aggressively work toward the elimination of greenhouse gases, transition to renewable fuels, and better control of what gets dumped into our waterways.

Third, was a strong and safe sense of community, and here may be where we in our contemporary lifestyles may struggle the most. Food supply issues? That’s someone else’s problem. Climate change? I’ll donate money to ease my conscience. But creating and being an active part of a supporting and caring community? That involves a level of participation that many of us are not ready to accept. We’ve been in quarantine for a year and to be honest, there are a lot of people around us we don’t want to talk to in the hallway, let alone allow people into our community. 

This brings us back to the massive loss of empathy that Dr. Runyan mentioned. As incredible as it may seem, and this truly boggles my mind, there is a war on empathy. Now, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, I’m defining empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person; the ability to identify with the challenges someone else faces, a sense of like-mindedness or togetherness in a common struggle. Given that definition, one would think that encouraging empathy would be a no-brainer.

In 2019, Joe Rigney, the president of Bethlehem College and Seminary, wrote an article decrying empathy as a sin. He describes empathy as an act of manipulation, “forcing the sorrower out of their sorrow against their will,” and even emotional tyranny. The idea caught hold and conservative evangelical churches across the United States began preaching that empathy, caring, and even compassion, every last one of which is mandated not only by the Bible but every holy book in every major religion, are now wrong. People stopped caring. People stopped helping. As that happened, fueled by a national rhetoric of hate, our communities collapsed. Every. Last. One. Just in time for a global pandemic.

Pastor and author John Pavlovitz wrote in the wake of the January 6 attempted insurrection:

“If you profess to be a follower of Jesus, I’m not concerned with your politics and I don’t care about your doctrine. I’m not interested in the Scriptures you can recite or the prayers you utter out loud. Show me a working theology of empathy. Show me that you actually give a damn about people: not just Republican people or American people or Christian people or white people—but the disparate parade of human beings in every way you encounter them, in every condition they arrive, with whatever backstory they’ve lived through.”

Empathy is where we begin to find our community. It is in the people who go to the same coffee shop we frequent, or the same bar, or the same bowling alley. Community is our sensitivity to the single mom trying to juggle a baby, a toddler, a stroller, and three bags of groceries while trying to find the key that fits the front door. Community is our awareness of the autistic young adult who just moved into the apartment next door and is afraid to go outside even to buy groceries. Community is having sympathy for the struggling Millennial who just lost their third job since the pandemic started because their employer couldn’t afford to stay open. 

Community is based strongly on empathy and without that empathy not only does this perpetual trauma not end, but it also gets worse. People who we would never think of doing anything extreme, people who we thought were good neighbors, suddenly flip out and kill their family during an argument, or drive their car into a crowd of protestors, or shoot up a grocery store. And while we can argue, perhaps correctly, that limited access to guns and access to reliable mental health care are necessary, at the core of everything lies the fundamental need for an empathetic, sympathetic, compassionate community.

I’m not going to pretend that any of these things are easy. We’ve had 20,000 years to get here and it’s foolish to think even for a moment that me standing here telling you these things is going to suddenly strike a chord and cause everything to change. But in establishing what we need, we can begin to chart a path out of the trauma and begin to find a treatment for the global PTSD that causes us all to suffer. We don’t have to continue living like this. 

With Friends Like These

Henri Frédérick Amiel said, “A man must be able to cut a knot, for everything cannot be untied: he must know how to disengage what is essential from the detail in which it is enwrapped, for not everything can be equally considered; in a word, he must be able to simplify his duties, his business, and his life.

Or if rhyming is more your style, Theodor Geisel wrote:

It’s a troublesome world. All the people who’re in it
Are troubled with troubles almost every minute.
You ought to be thankful, a whole heaping lot,
For the places and people you’re lucky you’re not.

All the words in the world, all the memes, the statistics, the arguments one way or another, don’t change a damn thing. If we’re done living in a world of perpetual trauma, we have to take action and for many people, action takes more courage than we feel like we’ll ever have.

So, let me leave you with these words:

It is sufficient for the strength inside you to carry you forward.
Carry the responsibilities with grace.
Lift each worry or burden with peace, not your back.
Defend truth, justice, and righteousness in your practice.
And always remember that it’s okay to stop and rest.

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