Trauma or a Lesser Cousin?

17 Nov

Dear Readers:

Today I want to talk with you about a very common phenomenon in today’s hyper-tech, on-steroids world of information and sensation overload! This phenomenon is actually a universal human experience that has been with us since the dawn of the human race.

As human over the ages, we have undoubtedly experienced instances of meteors landing on earth, of forest fires, or hurricanes, tornados and typhoons, of tidal waves, earthquakes, and tsunamis. These are traumas resulting from natural causes. However, there are also the human-caused trauma: betrayal, theft, murder, and so on. The Bible tells us about the murder of Abel by Cain and the subsequent stigma that Cain bore all his life because of that act. The story of Cain and Abel is a way of highlighting the universality of human tragedy due to conflicting needs and desires among family and community members. The destruction which results from conflicts gone savagely violent is no less a catastrophe than those natural eruptions on the planet mentioned earlier.

Human beings react differently to trauma, whether it be a devastation such as was experienced by thousands of people in Port au Prince, Haiti, or whether it be an individual trying to recover from rape, incest, or child abuse.

Our first reaction to trauma is shock. We can hardly believe our eyes, our ears. Trauma hits us between the eyeballs and reverberates on our eardrums. However, it may be most potently experienced kinesthetically — by the nerves and muscles of our body.

If we are lucky, we will have at least one other person to listen to us as we relate what we experienced. We need to be heard after a trauma, because we are having a hard time believing what happened (we are in shock), and so a listening presence enables us to believe our experience. We need to believe it so we can begin to recover from it.

Trauma is utterly horrifying. It we go back thousands of years to the time of the ancient Greeks, we may recall Oedipus’ horror when he found out that he had been sleeping with his own mother. That Greek drama, Oedipus Rex, provoked the shock experience in Oedipus and in the audience, and so drama and trauma were linked in the Greek mindset.

This century has brought with it a much more widespread experience of trauma to the world’s population thanks to readily available and instantaneous media. Whether it be the execution of an innocent American or European by ISIS; the murder of young teenagers by a wanted criminal; or the abuse and murder of an innocent nine-year-old killed by his own mother, we are bombarded daily and nightly by horrendous stories which vicariously traumatize us with vivid scenes and explicit descriptions. School shootings, mobs out of control, drive-by killings, police violence — all of these events come at us in vivid color on our nightly news.

I am making several points here:

  1. Trauma, natural and manmade, has existed time immemorial as part of the human experience.
  2. Directly experiencing trauma has an immediate and a long-lasting effect on our nervous system.
  3. As human beings living in the first half of the 21st century, we are traumatized vicariously by events we experience “from a distance” on a daily basis. Not only that, we may also be traumatized by technology and its unrelenting “progress” and by the fast pace of a society which has little time for people to relate to one another in a deep and caring way.

These are my initial thoughts — an introduction, if you will — toward making sense of the “heightened awareness” of many persons whom I see in therapy and who are “arrested” in their recovery from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In future blogs I will link the “normal,” everyday stress we encounter to the more extreme form of stress known as PTSD. This “normal” stress is the “lesser cousin” I refer to in the title to this blog. I invite comments to this discussion at!

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