We are all traumatised

24/03/2014 § 2 Comments

I knew a little boy (let’s call him James) who would constantly measure things in monetary terms “Have a look at my football gloves, they cost…”. “I have £xxx in my bank account”. In a 7 year old, this was impressive but also a bit disconcerting.

James had a hard time in his early years – his parents separated when he was 5, a very messy separation of mutual accusations and a court battle. Before that he had years of unpleasant arguments at home, often being caught in the middle. Such experiences can be extremely unsettling for a young child.

James was very good with numbers – no doubt he was a bit precocious. He was certainly bright, intellectually, for his years. But it occurs to me that his strange fondness for measuring things could be explained also by the tough time he had. One way of dealing with his trauma was to hold onto numbers, giving him some certainty in an uncertain world. Numbers are lovely in their predictability – one plus one always equals two. And it is possible to use numbers as a universal measure, creating apparent order in a messy world (“my mummy loves me because she spent this much on me.” Or “I am safe because I have £xxx in the bank.”)

James is not alone in suffering trauma and in finding strange ways to deal with it. Life is, by its nature, traumatizing. A friend of mine, a physchotherapist, tells me that we are all traumatised in some way. This doesn’t need to be by death of a loved one, or suffering violence or hunger or illness. It can be traumatizing, as a 17 year old boy, to ask a girl out (I remember). It can be traumatising for a young child to undergo exams, to see their parents arguing, to move house or move school. It is traumatizing to live in a society that behaves as if it cares nothing about other forms of life, a society that seems to place financial gain above beauty, compassion and peace.

If we stay open to change, open to life, we can move through our trauma and grow. “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” said Nietsche. But at different stages of our growth many of us need props to hold on to – computer games, alcohol, drugs, sex, money, TV, newspapers, excessive work, all come to mind. In James case it was numbers. There is nothing wrong with this except these props can stunt our growth if we hold onto them too long.

I find this helpful when I think about our society and its obsession with money and mathematical measures. So much of our behaviour seems to be driven by the assumption that more money is always better, no matter how it is earned or used. Virtually all the political parties subscribe to this bizarre notion – indeed for most it appears to be the starting point for all their policies. It infiltrates education, health, war (sorry, a slip of the pen, I of course meant defence), energy, welfare and so on. 

If I can see George Osborne, the UK chancellor, as traumatised (rather than making him evil or stupid, or blaming him in some way), it helps me to forgive him for his heartlessness and his simple minded approach to our nation’s finances. If I can see corporate executives as traumatised (and goodness knows, working within a large corporation can be traumatizing in all sorts of subtle and not so subtle ways) than I can be more understanding when they take actions that don’t serve themselves or don’t contribute to a more peaceful world.

Viewing people as traumatised doesn’t mean I pity them – pity doesn’t do any good. In fact when I pity someone, all I am doing is distancing myself, raising myself up and considering myself superior. Rather I can feel empathy and compassion towards them. I may still want to educate them, to oppose them, to challenge them, but I do so from a place of love, not fear.  

Of course the same applies to me. If I view myself as traumatised I can forgive myself for all my fears and inadequacies. And forgiveness is the start of growth.

Will James grow out of his fixation on numbers? Will our society? Yes – I believe so. Life is extraordinary in its ability to heal, to re-create, to renew. But then, maybe that is just my misguided belief, an unfounded optimism that I have developed out of my need to deal with my trauma. Life is complex isn’t it 🙂



§ 2 Responses to We are all traumatised

  • Finn Jackson says:

    Very good, thank you 🙂

  • donsalmon says:

    Jan and I are rewriting the text for our home page, trying to describe the brain in a bit more detail than we do now. We’ve brought together a very large amount of literature which shows how our brains are out of sync with the complex world we live in.

    For example, we have a stress response system which worked great when we had to face, perhaps a few times a day, a sabre toothed tiger. But it’s a disaster nowadays, as the amygdala – our alarm system in the limbic region – is constanlty on, interpreting every psychological stressor (an insult from a colleague or just reading about the nonsense going on in the government or in corporations) and in response unleashes a cascade of stress hormones which adversely affect our immune system, endocrine system, cardiovascular system and other systems of the body.

    Our limbic region evolved to allow us to make deep emotional connections to others – this was necessary in mammals who raised their young and relied on close emotional attachments for survival. This worked great in the small communities we lived in hundreds of thousands of years ago, where we knew 150 people or so and probably rarely met a stranger in our lifetimes. nowadays, the stress of constantly reading about millions of people or meeting dozens or hundreds of new people every day (at least, if you live in a large city, coming into contact with hundreds of new people) causes the limbic region to be on overdrive, and in turn, activating the stress system which again, causes havoc with the body.

    Our gut brain (enteric nervous system) has an amazing capacity to know what kind of food we need. It has been assessed that we know what to eat within 1% of our caloric needs without having to thinking about it – IF our bodies are in a fairly “natural” balanced state. We also lived with relative scarcity, so if food was available, our brains were wired to eat it. This worked well on the savannah, but is a disaster when we can walk down the street into a supermarket crammed full of foods which food scientists paid ghastly amounts of money have spent weeks or years designing, with just the right amounts of fat, sugar and salt to put our reward and pleasure systems into overdrive, flooding our brain with dopamine and leaving us craving for more.

    Even money has this effect on our reward/pleasure system, creating cravings and addictions for material possessions, leaving us exhausted and deeply dissatisfied.

    And yes, the effect of all this is a kind of trauma. So another way to think of your finance minister is to think that he has a woefully unbalanced, undeveloped brain.

    To leave you with the good news, we have a “wise brain” – potentially, in our mid prefrontal cortex, and through calm, neutral, nonjudgmental, present-centered attention, (which physiologically changes the prefrontal cortex) in combination with cultivation of positive emotions (which physiologically changes the heart brain), with a positive, supportive network of others seeking to develop and balance the brain, and with suffiicent effort to undo the distortions which have resulted from our upbringing in this profoundly unbalanced society – the brain can radically rewire itself and function in a way which leads us to profoundly empathize and connect with others, and live our lives in a way that we seek meaning and purpose – for others as much as ourselves – rather than satisfactions of our cravings driven by the trauma of living in an unbalanced world.


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