Thoughts on Trauma

I’ve been thinking today about trauma. Here I’m going to explore the topic a little, discuss the case of survivors of war, and think a bit about how in public and institutional context trauma can be precipitated and weaponised.

At my therapist’s the other day the topic of trauma came up, and he described a model of trauma that was arresting in its difference from my naive understanding, but profound in its implications.

Trauma, he said, occurs when our feelings are at odds with what we are told we are feeling. This can happen not only when our suffering is denied by those around us (this is gaslighting), but also when we are told we are suffering but are not.

As an example, he discussed the experience of survivors of war arriving in camps for refugees or internally displaced persons. Under previous practice, the camp workers would assume that people arriving at the camp would be traumatised, and would start their treatment on this basis. They found that rather than decreasing the levels of trauma, this actually increased them. Many of the arrivals didn’t consider themselves victims, and to have victimhood forced on them was itself traumatising.

A new approach was to attempt to understand each camp arrival on their own terms. To be ready to appreciate and value their resilience in escaping a war zone and making it to relative safety. To be ready to treat trauma if it became apparent, but all the more to recognise and celebrate the strength, experience and knowledge that each person brought.

As I look around our social and political discourse, I wonder how often we see the traumatisation of the previously untraumatised. How often do we tell people ‘you are suffering’, ‘you are traumatised’, ‘you deserve pity’, ‘you need help’, without first asking them ‘how do you feel?’, ‘what do you need?’ And by doing so, how often do we propagate traumas not rooted in primary experiences, but rather in our imposed, secondary perception of them?

And how often are these patterns of behaviour part of a self-perpetuating system? How often are these ripples of trauma deliberately propagated? How often are the newly traumatised collateral damage in our toxic political discourse?

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