To be able to more effectively discuss the implications of collective trauma and intergenerational trauma in future posts, it will first be helpful to explore some more general information about what trauma is, and how it impacts us. I worked in the field of mental health and social services 40 years, the last of those as primarily a trauma therapist. However, it it was not until those last several years of my career that I became aware of the paradigm changing research that was taking place in understanding trauma’s impacts individually and collectively.
Recent scientific research has shed new light on: what kinds of experiences are traumatizing; how experiencing trauma impacts the individual; and what kinds of impacts, and by what means, can trauma’s impacts be transmitted between generations. This post will provide only a very basic examination of these areas, as my goal with this blog site is primarily to discuss the macro-implications of these new research findings as they relate to Western and world history. Though I will not here attempt a comprehensive review of this newly emerging research I will provide a variety of informational resources (see listings at the end of this post), which offer a much more detailed and nuanced account of this information.
If one thinks of danger as an experience that in some fashion activates our bodies biologically hardwired “fight / flight / freeze” response system. We might define trauma generically as a danger experience that in some way overwhelms our ability to adequately respond, while also producing various potentially long-term impacts to our physical and/or emotional wellbeing.
Our “fight / flight” response is governed by our sympathetic nervous system and allows us to take action, when confronted with a “danger” experience. Our “freeze” response is a function of our parasympathetic system, and engages when it is unsafe to fight or flee in response to the “danger” experience. Our “fight / flight / freeze” responses allow us to respond at a physiological level, rather than only a conscious cognitive level, to the immediate “danger” experience we are facing.
These response systems can effectively manage our physiological response to many episodic short lived dangers. For example, if we are walking in the woods and stumble upon a mother grizzly bear with cubs, our “fight / flight / freeze” response system will immediately engage without any conscious effort on our part. Stress response related chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline will be released, which will facilitate our “fight / flight” behavioral response(s). Heart rate will increase, muscles will tense and we will experience a surge of energy allowing us to better response to the threat to our safety and perhaps to our very life. In this case let us imagine that the bear growls at us and then turns and walks away without threatening us further. Though the danger passed quickly, the aftermath of this seconds long encounter will involve our body being flooded for a period of time with these stress related chemicals already released, and with other associated sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system responses. Our breathing and heart rate will eventually return to normal, our muscles will eventually relax, and we will likely be no worse for the experience, although we may choose not to walk in these particular woods again any time soon.
To better understand the difference between such a brief rare danger experience, and the very different impacts of chronic danger experiences, which can constitute trauma, let’s imagine the world of an abused child. In this case “the bear” is the child’s father, and he is physically, emotionally and/or sexually abusive when he arrives home drunk, which occurs regularly over days, months and years. In such a situation, the child’s “fight / flight / freeze” response is not only activated over and over again on a chronic basis, but the emotional, physical and sexual abuse events associated with this activation are extremely traumatizing in themselves for the child.
What research now shows us is that the very architecture of this child’s brains is being changed through the experience of these events. Her/his brain is unable to simply reset to baseline the stress related chemical releases and other physiologic reactions that occur with activation of the brain’s trauma response systems, since this activation has now become “routine” rather than a rare brief episode. The result of such childhood trauma experiences is a brain that is now literally rewired for “hypervigilance.*” That is, rewired for ALWAY being in a mode ready to respond to threat, since threat is literally, in this child’s life, omnipresent.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences study, or “ACE Study,” examined various impacts in adults created by such childhood trauma as much as 50 years and more, prior. The ACE Study (and many follow-up studies) produced paradigm changing evidence regarding the lifetime impacts produced by childhood trauma experiences. An abbreviated list of such impacts range from significantly increased adult risk of: substance abuse and addiction, obesity, depression, anxiety and panic reactions, suicidal ideation and attempts, heart disease, sleep problems, eating disorders, and self-injury. Multiple childhood trauma experiences were also associated with shortened life expectancy (up to 20 years) related in part to significantly increased risk of physical impacts such as ischemic heart disease, autoimmune disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, liver disease, and HIV/AIDS.
Many of our social problems are also significantly associated with childhood trauma including: homelessness, prostitution, delinquency, violence, criminal behavior, inability to maintain employment, re-victimization by rape, domestic violence, bullying, compromised ability to parent, teen and unwanted pregnancy, negative self-perception and the intergenerational transmission of abuse.
The ACE Study, and related research into the neurobiology of childhood trauma, show that the impacts of childhood trauma are not limited to bad or repressed “memories,” but to a wide range of lifetime negative physical and psychological impacts in adults, decades after the initial abuse experiences occurred.
*(hypervigalence): We can use an “automobile engine” as the central image in an admittedly mechanistic metaphor to help us visualize the impact of the neurobiological changes associated with significant childhood trauma experiences. The adult with no childhood trauma experiences is like the normally functioning automobile when it is in neutral and the gas pedal is not being depressed. The car’s engine is getting the right amount of gas to hum quietly along without undue stress or strain, though the car is not moving. However, when we visualize the adult with a significant childhood trauma background, we can imagine that the same gas pedal is now ALWAYS pushed HALFWAY to the floorboard! The result is an always racing engine that represents – “hypervigalance,” – the body and mind always activated and ready to respond to danger. The wear and tear on the now always racing engine (our mind/body) is of course much greater than on the quietly idling engine, particularly when considered over the many decades that trauma impacts persist.
For further reading on the impacts of childhood trauma, the ACE Study and the neurobiology of trauma see the following resources as a starting point:
The next blog post will explore the newly emerging field of epigenetics. This will lay the foundation for all our future discussions regarding collective trauma and its impacts at the macro-level in Western civilization, as well as globally through the colonization of the entire planet by Western peoples.