Sunday, March 18, 2018

Dealing With Traumas and Other Destructive Life Experiences

            One of the most frequently used terms today in connection with the long-term effects of war on people is post-traumatic stress disorder.  The essence of this concept is that long after a person experiences an explosive disruptive event that does immediate physical and psychological damage, there are lingering psychological effects, some of which don’t become apparent until years after the explosive disruptive event.  The event is so disruptive and so overwhelming, that the person who experiences it is unable to process it effectively, and unable to somehow absorb it and integrate it in his mind.  In modern times, we have created extremely destructive weapons and, at the same time, increasingly amazing methods of keeping people alive from the destruction that they experience.  People survive being maimed and crippled and shocked from these weapons, and their memories of what caused these horrendous destructive experiences survive as well.  The obvious cause of the PTSD is the overstimulating tension-pocket armaments that created these destructive effects.  But I would like to submit there is another more subtle level of causation working here.  And this is the experiential vacuum within which modern warfare frequently occurs.

            It is not like the days when a person could see who was attacking him much of the time.  There are no sword fights or gun duels or opposing armies on a battlefield.  Instead we are talking much more about warfare from mediation and surprise.  Snipers, bombings from airplanes and missiles, land mines, suicide bombings.  There is little opportunity to steel oneself against such attacks.  A person today frequently does not see his enemy up close, and the enemy frequently does not see him up close.  And the suicide bomber does not see many of the people he kills.  Modern weapons are very anonymous and very alienating.  They knock us around experientially our modern vacuum battlefield.  They create experiential tension-pockets that can shock us, overstimulate us, even when there are no actual immediate physical injuries. And this psychological shock is made so much worse as a result of the cold, impersonal, mediated backdrop of modern technological warfare in which they occur.  And it is so easy to pull triggers and press buttons to set projectiles in motion, so totally frictionless.

            These elements of emptiness and surprise make it much more difficult for a war victim to process, absorb and integrate what has happened to him.  The person relives what has happened to him over and over again.  He may be able to suppress it for a while.  But even then, it may begin to affect him in negative ways of which he is not fully conscious.

            Trauma is not a condition exclusively connected to war.  Freud wrote about the emotionally traumatic events that affected people when they were children.  These traumatic events were emotionally repressed and as a result, created many psychological symptoms.  People were not able to process, absorb and integrate these events into their psyches because they were so sharply painful, but the events continued to stimulate them in the form of these symptoms. And the symptoms impaired the people’s quality of life, prevented the people from living fully happy and productive lives.  It was the purpose of psychoanalysis to help a person to explore his unconscious mind through free association and dream analysis in order to bring those traumas to the surface of consciousness.  There they could be properly processed, absorbed and integrated by the person in such a way that they no longer would control his life so much.

            The notion of trauma is certainly an important component in understanding mental illness.  But so is the notion of a vacuum. Many emotional problems result from a person’s lack of connection to emotionally remote parents rather than from tension-pocket abuse.  And furthermore both tension-pocket traumas and a vacuum lack of emotional connection can be reinforced, amplified as a result of the sensory distortion from a modern technological, vacuum and tension-pocket, living environment.  The lack of organic grounding in such an environment means there is not an external world configuration of stimuli that can create a template to help people to heal their antagonisms and their causes of feeling emotionally apart.  In our vacuum living environment, everything gets exaggerated.

            But it is important to realize that psychotherapies developed to heal emotional problems, whether PTSD or traditional neuroses or personality disorders, very likely won’t be totally successful without taking into consideration the effects of highly vacuumized living environments.  A grounded living environment can be so helpful in allowing a person to absorb a disruptive overwhelming event.  Many years ago, I read an anthropological study on the Tahitians, a Polynesian group from the South Pacific.  What impressed me most was an observation by the anthropologist of a boy who had climbed a tree, probably to pick coconuts, and fallen off it and broken his arm.  The boy’s reaction was to calmly pick up his broken arm with his good arm and go back to his village to have the arm taken care of.  No crying, no fuss, no shock for something that might have been a traumatic event for a boy in Western society.  It was indicated that a Tahitian boy would have been far more troubled by a situation where he experience a loss of social approval, a loss of emotional organic grounding.  But at least the Tahitian boy had the organic grounding of a natural environment and a more coherent social community to worry about losing.  This doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems of organic perishability in a tropical paradise.  What about typhoons?  And strong social grounding in traditional societies can bring threats of being enveloped by sorcery and witchcraft.  But natural grounding and social grounding can also help to create the kind of internal emotional grounding that help to prevent disruptive and explosive events from resonating in a person’s mind.

            At exactly that moment in history when technology development is resulting in weapons and other machines with the predisposition to create explosive tension-pocket impacts on the human body and mind, it has also created vacuum living environments that lack the organic grounding to help a person to psychologically process, absorb, and integrate the potentially traumatic effects that result from the processes of these weapons and other machines.  And so the traumatic events bounce back and forth within a person’s mind like floating figures in a physical vacuum.  The contribution of a vacuum physical backdrop that ultimately leads to a vacuum psychological backdrop in the mind has to be taken into consideration as an amplifier of all the diverse emotional problems that are occurring today.  In other words, sensory distortion can have an enormous influence on mental illness.

© 2017 Laurence Mesirow

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