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The Truth About Trauma: Bessel van der Kolk, Rachel Yehuda and George Bonanno
How the mainstreaming of trauma is changing culture
As a child, James was regularly beaten by his alcoholic father. His mother was emotionally distant and pretended not to notice. His home was a living nightmare, a threatening place where he never felt safe or loved. As an adult, James struggled with addiction, and found it hard to maintain intimate relationships.
One day he met Sarah and they fell in love. Sarah grew up in a supportive household. It wasn’t perfect, but on the whole her parents gave her space to express her emotions and she felt loved. When she was 23, she was driving with a friend when they were hit by a truck. Her friend died instantly while Sarah suffered minor injuries. But she had mental scars. She was diagnosed with PTSD and suffered from flashbacks, panic attacks, and a deep and gnawing guilt. By the time she met James, she’d worked through her PTSD with the help of a therapist, and moved on with her life.
Sarah and James don’t exist. However, millions of people share experiences like theirs. In the simplest terms, something bad happened to them that they struggled to move past. The bad thing that happened to Sarah was traumatic, but she eventually got through it. The many bad things that happened to James are inextricable from his identity, and he lives with them daily.
We call this human experience ‘trauma’, and it’s absolutely everywhere in popular culture today. We talk of the ‘collective trauma’ of COVID. The ancestral trauma resulting from colonialism. Acute Trauma. Complex Trauma. Attachment Trauma. Trauma Bonding. Trigger warnings, safe spaces and trauma dumping. Trauma is historic. Personal. Universal. Above all, trauma is not what it appears to be.
This piece explores what it means for our cultural understanding of suffering to be increasingly related to the psychological concept of trauma. I interview some of the leading names in the field, including Dr. Bessel van der Kolk (author of The Body Keeps the Score), Dr. Rachel Yehuda (professor of psychiatry and the neuroscience of trauma), Dr. George Bonanno (author of The End of Trauma) and Alex Howard (author and psychotherapist), and explore the surprising ideological war around the term within psychology (paying subscribers get access to the full video interviews with van der Kolk, Yehuda and Bonanno).
I’ll take you on the winding journey I’ve been on, presenting the research that led me to question whether the ‘trauma revolution’ may not be what it appears to be. I examine where trauma therapy intersects with questionable science and market forces, and how it relates to the deeper theological roots of the West. Above all, this piece explores how we make sense of suffering in an age where we’re increasingly disconnected from our bodies and souls.
The Trauma Plot
This piece began for me when, early in 2022, I read an article by literary critic Parul Sehgal called ‘The Case Against The Trauma Plot.’ She put words to something I’d been noticing; how modern storytellers use a character’s trauma, particularly childhood trauma, as a way to explain their motivations. While there may be some truth to this, Sehgal argues that it reduces characters to a set of symptoms, and takes away the mystery that makes getting to know them so pleasurable to begin with.
A good example is the show Ted Lasso. The titular character is overwhelmingly positive. But we find out (through his work with a no-nonsense therapist) that his personality is a compensation for a traumatic event in his childhood. The whole character, and the whole show, is really just a trauma response at the end of the day.
The trauma plot is a symptom of a much broader cultural impulse to explain human beings through the lens of trauma. My counselling training was trauma-informed, and on the whole I think it’s a beneficial approach. However, for several years I’ve been nursing a thought that’s felt taboo among many of my peers; what if we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater? Not just in workshops or therapy, but in culture as a whole, what if we’re slowly sanitising and padding everything until we forget the place that challenge, danger and discomfort has in transformation?
‘The Case Against the Trauma Plot’ referenced a new book called The End of Trauma by George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Teacher’s College, Columbia, who has been researching trauma for three decades. In the book, he argues that on the whole, people are highly resilient, and it’s a very small number of us who experience PTSD after a traumatic event. What defines the human psyche more than its susceptibility to trauma is its incredible flexibility in adapting to challenge.
In a strange coincidence, the day after I read that article I received an email from a friend suggesting we have George Bonanno on Rebel Wisdom. I quickly read The End of Trauma and got in touch with him, because the book had led me consider a stunning and disturbing possibility. What if our certainty that trauma is the cause of so many of our ills is akin to a medieval physician’s certainty that illness is caused by bad humours? What if both our psychotherapeutic and cultural understanding of trauma is leading us to experience in our own psyches something that isn’t there?
Shock and Awe
Let’s return to our imagined couple, James and Sarah. James experienced a childhood defined by neglect, emotional and physical abuse. He has struggled with addiction, and he’s quick to temper, hyper-vigilant and always on the look out for danger. Sarah grew up in a much more supportive environment, and when she experienced PTSD, she was able to work through it with therapy and family support.
Bonanno’s book focuses on the kind of trauma Sarah experienced, because James’ struggles as an adult aren’t recognised in the DSM as a response to trauma. This is despite the fact that there is a lot of evidence for how ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) affect our mental health later in life.
Psychiatrist and author Bessel van der Kolk is one of the world’s leading experts in early life trauma, as well as the author of The Body Keeps the Score which spent over 150 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and has reportedly sold over 2 million copies. van der Kolk has lobbied the DSM to include what he calls ‘Developmental Trauma Disorder’, because as he told me when we spoke,
“[There isn’t] a single diagnostic system in which people recognise child abuse and neglect as a core aetiological factor. And so we have these very strange diagnoses like conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder and all these weird terms that really just say ‘This person has been neglected and abused and has certain behaviours as a result of that'.”
I began my conversation with Bonanno asking him about his take on why we’re using the same word, trauma, for these two related but different types of human suffering. He said that there’s no way to control language or how society uses a term, but that as a clinician and researcher he sticks to the DSM’s definition of trauma.
“In the DSM trauma is a very specific thing,” Bonanno explained. “It's a violent or life threatening event that is outside the range of normal experience. But even that is a misnomer, because even those events don't always cause trauma reactions…
I use the phrase in my research ‘potentially traumatic events’, as no event is inherently traumatic. …This is what the research has shown for years and years, and my own research has show this countless times. It's not even in dispute: most people who endure really extreme events do not suffer trauma reactions.”
In The End of Trauma, Bonanno points to how a cultural focus on trauma often leaves out our inherent resilience. After 9/11, for example, FEMA set aside $100 million for counselling services, expecting that millions of New Yorkers would experience severe and enduring trauma. And for the first few weeks, a lot of people did experience PTSD-like symptoms. But they went through a normal process of healing and the vast majority didn’t suffer from clinical PTSD.
Hardly anyone sought out the (heavily advertised) free services, to such a degree that those running the campaign wondered whether it might be that people were avoiding therapy due to stigma. But even after physically sending people onto the streets to offer the therapy, the program had a very low uptake. Bonanno’s point is that the majority of us experience a traumatic event, go through a short period of symptoms as we process it, and then get on with our lives.
But this is an example of the kind of trauma that the DSM recognises: PTSD. It involves an inciting incident, followed by a range of symptoms like flashbacks and panic attacks. But what about James? Some people have started called Sarah’s experience Big T Trauma and James’ ‘little t’ trauma. When I spoke to Alex Howard, a psychotherapist specialising in childhood trauma and creator of Therapeutic Coaching, he said he isn’t a fan of those terms and prefers the terms overt trauma (like the trauma Bonanno is speaking to) and covert trauma (less tangible but nevertheless traumatic experiences). van der Kolk had a similar reluctance around these terms when we spoke:
“‘Little t’ trauma is a sloppy term and puts [those experiences] in a secondary role. In fact, what people call ‘little t trauma’, I think is really attachment trauma. It's about disrupted attachments. As long as you feel safe with the people around you, it's very unlikely you'll get PTSD…. we are collective creatures.
What people call ‘small t trauma’ is a very complex issue of people being ignored, people not being seen, kids not being responded to, kids getting slapped instead of being listened to. These are major issues that shape your personality and your identity…what people frivolously call ‘little t trauma’ are really the big issues of who we are as human beings and our obligations to take care of each other and to nurture each other in that regard.
The big trauma, horrendous things that leave you speechless? We are not bad at treating that. We spend a lot of time and effort into learning how to treat rape victims, how to treat torture victims. And we're moving in the right direction in that regard. But how to deal with having felt neglected, ignored and not seen as a child? We're not very good at prescribing what the best treatment for that.”
As van der Kolk and Bonanno both point out, we are in fact quite good at treating people like Sarah. But the early life traumas that James experienced are far more complex.
This is where the popularisation of trauma in culture can have real benefits, because it can normalise experiences which, at least for now, are not recognised by psychiatry. Rachel Yehuda is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, the Vice Chair for Veterans Affairs in the Psychiatry Department, and Director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. I was aware of Yehuda’s work because, like van der Kolk, she is also involved in psychedelic therapy (we explored where this overlaps with trauma in our full interview). I asked her what she makes of the popularisation of trauma in culture, given the ambiguities around what the phrase means.
“The benefits of increased awareness of trauma is to de-stigmatize its effects,” she explained. “A lot of people feel very relieved when they understand that some of the reactions they're experiencing have have a root cause. And it's not just some sort of a weakness inside of them or something that they can't understand, something they're doing wrong... And sometimes you can really work from that and get to what I call the other side, which is to take the reactions that you have, which are completely legitimate reactions to a very big challenge, and work through towards the optimal reaction to it that allows you to go forward, and even use the traumatic experience as a way to make really positive gains in your life.
The drawback could be if you basically attribute everything that happens in the world that you don't like or that you didn't expect, or that you find challenging to a trauma and attribute all the consequences, all of your emotions and behaviours to those experiences that can take a concept that could have been very useful and change it quite drastically.”
Yehuda is pointing to the importance of working through trauma to the other side. If James sought treatment to work through the impact of his abusive childhood, psychotherapy is one of the main options he’d have available. Implicit in this approach is the idea that there are traumatic events in our past that we are not remembering, or disassociating from because they’re too painful. By bringing them to the surface and eventually reframing or re-narrating them, we can move forward. As Alex Howard pointed out, this can lead to post-traumatic growth. This is the idea that our past pains can make us more resilient.
Resilience is the flip side of trauma, and Bonanno argues that it is directly related to another concept, flexibility. The degree of flexibility we can bring to how we heal that indicates the degree to which we will, and ultimately what really makes us resilient is being adaptive and creative in how we navigate our own healing process.
The process of going to a good therapist and talking through your past could be seen as moving it from a rigid certainty to something flexible and new. It’s also a process that’s now very familiar to us culturally. So familiar that it can be easy to forget that therapy, like any field, is based on ideological assumptions as much as it is on tried and tested methods. Specifically, psychotherapy assumes something that seems so obvious that it is rarely questioned on the cultural level: the idea that we can repress or disassociate from traumatic memories. The issue is, nobody actually knows if repression of memories is actually possible. It’s a theory, and George Bonanno doesn’t believe it:
“When we’ve experienced a trauma, we often just forget about it. We certainly don't repress it or any weird thing like that, which is a concept that doesn't quite make sense. The memories are there, but it's not something we think about in our daily lives. Then we're reminded of one of those things, or we are asked about one of those things, and suddenly we have this idea that we have a trauma in our background. But we don't have a trauma. We have a potentially traumatic event that we didn't necessarily suffer from.
It's a big difference, and I think that's confusing a lot of people... I think it's a serious misconception that the general public has. When people are genuinely traumatised, they know it, they don't forget it, and it bothers them a great deal for a long time. That's a genuine trauma. And those people are now being sort of minimised because of all this trauma everywhere.”
I had to stop my jaw from dropping when he said this. It seems so alien to what I understand about the human psyche. A moment later I was grinning, and told him it’s because I had a feeling what he said was going to piss off a lot of people I know, and I wanted to explore why that is.
Trauma in the Body
Bonanno’s concept of traumatic memory couldn’t be farther away from the new wave of trauma-informed psychology spearheaded by Bessel van der Kolk and others. This movement not only argues that we can indeed remember and reprocess hidden trauma, but that it doesn’t just exist in our minds. It also exists in our bodies and nervous systems.
A key figure in this movement is Dr. Peter Levine, who developed Somatic Experiencing. In his book Waking the Tiger, Levine recounts the now famous story of his patient Nancy who first changed his view on what trauma is. In 1969, he was seeing Nancy because she was having inexplicable panic attacks. During the session Nancy experienced one of these attacks, and spontaneously Levine saw in his mind’s eye a tiger, preparing to pounce at her. Immersed in the experience, he shouted at Nancy to run and escape the tiger.
Her legs started to move as if she was sprinting. Later she recounted that, for the first time, she was remembering a traumatic childhood experience: when she was three she had a tonsillectomy, and as part of it she was strapped to an operating table and couldn’t move. It was terrifying and she wanted to get away but it was too much, too fast and she couldn’t escape. Levine theorises that "the sudden immobility of a highly charged nervous system compresses energy that is then 'stored' in the nervous system if not released".
The idea is that while animals release stress straight away, often through shaking, as humans we suppress our body’s natural reactions and they get stuck in our nervous system. By ‘completing’ the motion we originally suppressed, like Nancy running, we can process these emotions from what Bessel van der Kolk calls a ‘bottom up’ approach, or what might be called a ‘body first’ approach to healing.
As van der Kolk argues in The Body Keeps the Score, while we might have dissociated from our traumatic experiences, the body ‘keeps the score’ and holds onto them. He writes in the book that 'For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present.' When we spoke, I asked him about some of the ways we can process trauma most effectively through this model.
“Being able to tell the truth, being able to find language for yourself, getting to know yourself, learning how to take care of your body is a very important part of overcoming the legacy of abuse and neglect,” he told me. “Learning how to be touched. Safely. That’s a very important part. My book is called The Body Keeps the Score, not because it's a cute title, but because actually you feel these things in your body and sensations. And so people need to be helped to feel safe in their bodies. Good body work can do this, and I suspect martial arts or tango dancing may also be very helpful. It’s good to help to get your body in sync with others; feeling a sense of agency and power as your body relates to other bodies…”
The Body Keeps the Score has struck a chord with millions of people who have felt intuitively that there is more to processing our past traumas than simply talking about them. So too, has Gabor Maté’s work, particularly his book In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts, which points to the strong links between early childhood trauma and addiction later in life.
But despite its growing popularity, this new trauma movement is still fringe compared to traditional psychiatry. There is relatively little research or mainstream psychiatric acceptance of ‘body first’ approaches to trauma, and van der Kolk suggested that this is partly due to market forces. There is likely something to this argument. I’ve seen first hand how psychiatric research is intertwined with pharma companies who make money out of drug sales, and insurance companies who are wedded to inexpensive treatment of symptoms rather than the deep work required to heal emotional wounds.
I’ve seen people gain peace and live happier lives using approaches like Somatic Experiencing, and understanding trauma through this lens has had a positive impact on my life. At the same time, I couldn’t ignore the discrepancies and contradictions I started finding when I took a closer look at these approaches. When I asked Bonanno to comment on The Body Keeps the Score, he pointed out that the triune brain theory on which some of van der Kolk’s argument is based has long been debunked. This is 50 year old neuroscience theory that says human beings we have three levels to our brains. An old reptilian brain at the base (which takes us over when we’re triggered), then a mammalian brain, and then the most ‘human’ prefrontal cortex.
“There isn’t some place we can hide memories away,” Bonanno told me. “... there's no anatomical or neuroscience mechanism to explain how you have a trauma hidden in your body. Now, anybody who discovers or becomes aware of a ‘hidden trauma’ - I don't want to speak for any particular individual - but I would put my money on it that that person wasn't actually traumatised at the time. It's not, you know, a PTSD kind of reaction because they would remember it. I know that’s a very strong statement.”
The Trauma Wars
From the perspective of many psychotherapists, trauma can be suppressed, dissociated from, then rediscovered and worked through to heal, either by talking or through the body. On the other side, we have clinicians and researchers like Bonanno who argue that, in his words, ”if you’ve been traumatised, you know it.” Bessel van der Kolk wasn’t familiar with Bonanno or his research, and when I put these critiques to him, here’s how he responded.
“Well, I think first of all, a book called ‘The End of Trauma’ is like a book like ‘The End of History’. That book didn't do too well. People have always been traumatised since the beginning of time and this guy has got to put an end to trauma? Like, good luck to you, man. And how much is your book? $15. Wow, that's amazing. That makes me wonder if he knows what he's talking about. I wonder if he has ever been heartbroken. I wonder if his guts have ever been wrenched. I wonder if he's ever read Darwin’s The Emotional Expression of Animals. Darwin brilliantly points out that you feel your emotions in your body. We have emotions in order to get the muscles to move, to get away from dangerous situations.”
In case it isn’t obvious, van der Kolk isn’t impressed by Bonanno’s arguments. He went on to list a series of examples he argued demonstrate that people regularly dissociate from traumatic experiences, including a number of soldiers having no memory of Dunkirk. People in road accidents can experience anterograde amnesia, and there’s extensive literature on holocaust survivors having no memory of much of their experience, or recovering memories at a later date.
How is it that two experts at the top of their fields disagree over something as fundamental as whether we can forget bad things that happened to us? It turns out I’d unwittingly stumbled into a war around the human psyche, and Bonanno and van der Kolk may be on opposing sides. It isn’t a physical war, but one that raged in psychology in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and one the field still hasn’t gotten over.
The Memory Wars
In 1990, a university student called Holly Ramona started therapy for her depression and bulimia. Her therapist, Marche Isabella, told Holly and her mother that bulimia was usually caused by incest, and that up to 70% of her bulimia patients had been sexually abused as children. Holly initially didn’t believe she had been abused, but through the course of therapy Isabella, who had no eating disorder training, worked with her until she seemed to uncover memories of being sexually abused by her father. Holly and her mother eventually confronted the father, who vehemently denied that he had ever molested his daughter. He would go on to lose his job, his marriage and his family, and became the first person to successfully sue a therapist over implanted memories.
This was just one of hundreds of similar stories involving ‘recovered memories’ of childhood sexual abuse in the 1980’s and 1990’s. It is a complicated moment in the history of psychology, because childhood sexual abuse is devastating and disturbingly common, and cases of false memories need to be carefully parsed out from real recollections.
At the same time, false accusations caused untold damage and could be seen as an example of a kind of ‘mass formation’ obsession among therapists that not only harmed patients, but destroyed lives. The Memory Wars, as they became known, are important in how we understand trauma and repression today. As Prospect Magazine reported in 1997 as the dust was settling:
“Through the “recovered memory” movement, the lives of hundreds of thousands of families have been devastated when adults, usually under the influence of therapists, recollect being sexually abused by their fathers when they were children. Many of their recollections go beyond straightforward abuse and unfold into scenes of ritual satanic abuse organised by networks of paedophiles.”
If that last sentence reminds you of QAnon, it’s not a coincidence. There was an element of conspiratorial thinking among some therapists involved in the ‘recovered memory’ movement. It became a kind of collective obsession, and like many conspiracy theories, a self-confirming loop that in some cases led experience therapists to nudge patients toward ever more fantastical accounts of satanic abuse cults (Matt Orchard has an excellent documentary on this where you can see in detail how it played out in therapy room footage). Many would later recant these ‘recovered memories,’ and other lawsuits like the Holly Ramona case followed.
For the more medicalised psychologists, the memory wars was proof that psychotherapy was a vague, unscientific hokum. For some within psychotherapy, it was proof that Freud’s legacy, which introduced the idea of suppressed incest memories, needed to be torn down. One of the leading critics of the movement was Frederick Crews. In his book The Memory Wars, he links Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT) directly to Freudian notions of the unconscious.
“In their shared predilection for fixed symbolic meanings, dogmatic explanations, split selves, and quasi demonic “introjects”… both systems stand closer to animistic shamanism than to science. Both must be discarded…if we are to bring psychotherapy into safe alignment with what is actually known about the mind.”
He’s not entirely wrong. Psychotherapy is, in some ways, like shamanism. And a lot of psychotherapists actively reject the evidence-based approach of psychiatry. Theirs is the symbolic realm of the unconscious, not the cold sterility of the lab. What Crews misses is that this doesn’t make it epistemologically inferior. The whole metaphysical foundation of medical psychiatry is based on physicalism, the idea that the only thing real is matter. However, physicalism has absolutely no idea what consciousness is, and psychology is a study of our conscious experience, of what it’s like to be you.
To this day, psychology doesn’t know whether it wants to be a pursuit of mind or a pursuit of matter. But funding doesn’t go toward the study of mind and symbolic realms, it goes toward the study of matter. As a result, in many ways medicalised psychiatry won the Memory Wars, and it’s led to a (perhaps necessary) re-evaluation of the reliability of traumatic memories by many clinicians.
There is some justification for this: memory is notoriously unreliable. Some studies have also shown that traumatised people are more likely to have false memories, and Elizabeth Loftus, arguably the most influential researcher in this area, has shown convincingly how suggestible we can be to forming new memories. As she told NPR, ‘When you feed people misinformation about some experience that they may have had, you can distort or contaminate or change their memory.’
However, the memory wars also left psychology stuck between two reductionist positions: that either traumatic memories are absolutely real, or that they are absolutely manufactured. Neither position seems satisfying to me, but this may explain, at least in part, why Bonanno and van der Kolk are at odds. It’s also a reminder that whole edifice of psychology is just as prone to being gripped by a fad or methodological obsession as any other field.
This led me to consider another taboo in the circles I move in: what if the very idea that trauma can be trapped in the body is a twenty-first century version of the recovered memory movement? What if we’re interpreting somatic releases through the lens of trauma, when in fact some as-yet-undiscovered mechanism(s) is at play? I have lived experience of how healing these approaches can be, so this isn’t to suggest that there isn’t something real and qualitative happening, simply that caution is due and we do well to stay open and curious.
Trauma and Politics
Unfortunately, when something goes mainstream, curiosity and nuance often go out the window. The popularisation of trauma isn’t just a result of culture becoming more aware of mental health, it also serves political and cultural functions, and as such is prone to being twisted and manipulated.
Trauma is a battleground in the culture wars. On the whole, progressives are more likely to call for ‘safe spaces’, trigger warnings and an overall sense of prioritising the traumatised over the un-traumatised. This may be best explained through the work of Jonathan Haidt, who argues in The Righteous Mind that our different political inclinations may be temperamental, determined largely by the moral foundations we’re born with.
In short, almost everyone believes they are acting morally, but we’re all born with different moral tastebuds. These are Care/Harm (providing care and preventing harm), Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation, and Liberty/Oppression. Conservatives tend to have a roughly equal measure of these foundations. Libertarians are highest in Liberty/Oppression, while progressives tend to score highest on Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating and lower in the other foundations.
The mainstreaming of trauma is at least partly driven by a moral desire to provide care and prevent harm, and to ensure fairness in society by supporting victims and punishing perpetrators. It’s also goes hand in hand with the increase in the acceptance of emotional vulnerability. Recently, celebrities like Selena Gomez have made waves by sharing their vulnerability and mental health challenges. Public emotional vulnerability appeals to a generation that has grown up on social media, constantly exposed, and often overwhelmed by that exposure and the uncertainty of the world they’re inheriting.
One result of this is what Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff explore in their book The Coddling of the American Mind, in which they argue that overprotection, and phenomena like ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ are having a detrimental affect on young people, making them more fragile and less resilient.
An over-focus on trauma goes hand in hand with a youth culture in which safety is held up as a value in and of itself at the expense of challenge, danger and risk-taking. In fact, safety isn’t a value to begin with, but a strategy. And one that may not be beneficial.
‘Trigger Warnings’ are an interesting case study of what happens when trauma notions enter into the mainstream. Ostensibly, the point is to let people know that content might be coming up that could make them uncomfortable, or ‘trigger them’ into a full on trauma response. Already, there is a moral choice here that ‘care/harm’ is a high enough value to warrant the needs of the few subsuming the needs of the many. This may be why you’re more likely to see them in content created by progressives than conservatives. However, it’s unclear they actually work, with a 2020 study on trauma survivors suggesting that they may actually increase anxiety.
That study suggests that trigger warnings may be detrimental because they increase the narrative centrality of trauma among survivors. ‘Narrative centrality’ or ‘event centrality’ is very important concept: it means the degree to which someone identifies with their trauma, and to which it’s central in how they understand their own life. Decreasing narrative centrality, so that people see a life and identity beyond what happened to them, is largely seen to be therapeutically beneficial, according to multiple studies like this one. Increasing narrative centrality is then counter-therapeutic: it risks keeping people ‘stuck’ in their trauma.
This is the double-edged sword of increased cultural awareness of trauma. On one edge, it opens up more honest and vulnerable conversations about emotional suffering and mental health. On the other edge, it increases the narrative centrality of trauma throughout society. Considering we aren’t even clear what we mean when we use the word trauma, the result is a convoluted mess that presents potentially harmful views about mental health by overshadowing our innate resilience.
We can see this play out through the TikTok trend of ‘trauma dumping’ in which young people unload their emotional pain publicly or unexpectedly. It’s controversial on the platform, partly because there’s an uncomfortable status-chasing element to it, and also because it is inevitably a mix of the occasional genuine traumatic experience (DSM wise), and teenagers trying to create trauma from difficult experiences that sound like normal teenage life.
Scrolling through #traumadumping on TikTok led me to consider that, for some young people today, many forms of difficulty and pain aren’t just ‘part of life’ but ‘my trauma’. And when the regular challenges of life become the all encompassing, inescapable behemoth that is ‘trauma’, they can very easily seem insurmountable. We can forget that we are resilient creatures first and foremost.
It’s likely that those same teenagers may grow up, and go into therapy looking to ‘find their trauma’. Some therapists will feel incentivised to help them do that. Other clients, who don’t feel they have been traumatised, may be pressured into feeling they have, and must be suppressing it. If they don’t feel a memory was particularly traumatising, a therapist may lead them to believe they’re in denial. We could be heading toward Memory Wars 2.0.
Not just individuals, but entire cultures are now being interpreted through a trauma-first lens. We can see this in the concepts of ‘collective’ or ‘ancestral’ trauma: the idea that trauma isn’t just something we experience as individuals, but that we experience collectively. I asked Rachel Yehuda what she makes of this phenomenon.
There's no question that there is a concept of people living in the same culture can feel the burden, and also the responsibilities, of the experiences that have been lived previously that have shaped the culture. I grew up in the Jewish culture. That's definitely true.
… The addition of trauma to that whole collective experience thing is very interesting because previously you would have just thought, okay, I come from I come from a group of people or I come from generations of people that have lived this way, that have had these challenges… you wouldn't necessarily frame that as traumatic. You would have just framed that as your legacy...
But is [collective trauma as a concept] helpful? That’s the question. If it galvanises survival, if it's a way to bring something forward in the same way that a diagnosis of a trauma related disorder is, if it's meant to explain things that are previously unexplained that you want to take forward and work with in a positive way, then sure. I think it can be very helpful.
I have always suspected that the idea of collective trauma is speaking to a collective lived experience, but that ultimately it’s a sociological truth rather than a medical truth. No one I spoke to for this piece saw collective or ancestral trauma as biological or even psychiatric phenomena. Even so, one of the reasons the idea of ancestral trauma is becoming popular is because of the study of epigenetics, which is how environmental factors can turn on particular genes and be passed on directly to the next generation. As Yehuda explains:
Epigenetics provides a mechanism for understanding that quite literally, the changes that are made in prior generations as a result of their experiences that change the way that their genes function. There are mechanisms for carrying those experiences forward. So again, epigenetics isn't the study of how traumatic experiences are carried forward. It's the study of how experience is carried forward, including coping and resilience and adversity and all of those things. Things that, depending on the context that you live in now, will either be quite helpful or maybe not so helpful depending on how different your circumstances from those of your previous generations.
As Yehuda points out, epigenetic transfer of trauma is extremely complex, because it isn’t just trauma that we pass on, but a range of other adaptations. George Bonanno told me that while epigenetic factors can make people slightly more susceptible to trauma, existing studies suggest the effect is quite minor. He pointed to the work of Abraham Sagi-Schwartz, himself Jewish, who courted controversy after researching holocaust survivors and found no significant epigenetic transfer of trauma from survivors to their children (a detailed study on that can be found here, and an interview with Sagi-Schwartz summarising his work here). On the other hand, a 2018 study suggested that the children of Civil War veterans had an 11% higher mortality that the researchers argued couldn’t be accounted for by other factors beyond epigenetics. In short, the whole area is a minefield.
So why, when the evidence is so complex and unclear, are so many people (particularly in spiritual, activist and personal growth worlds) convinced by the idea that trauma is something like a magical force that moves through individuals and generations on a biological level?
It may be that this belief is in itself a kind of coping strategy in response to our modern environment, and highlights the most significant aspect of the cultural mainstreaming of trauma.
Psychology as Religion and the Problem of Evil
James and Sarah eventually got married and settled down. For James, their relationship helped him feel the safety and love he never had as a child, and from that place he was able to begin journey of healing. For Sarah it allowed her to create for their children the kind of family she was lucky enough to be born into. Theirs is a story, then, of love conquering suffering. Of overcoming the pain inflicted on us by others, and by reality itself.
This is what our cultural narratives about trauma give us. A way to make sense of suffering and transform it into growth. A reason for why bad things happen, and what can be done when they do. It is psychology’s response to what in theology is called ‘The Problem of Evil’. A Christian version of this asks why, if God is benevolent and all powerful, he lets evil happen? Buddhism tackles it by teaching that our suffering is born out of our own self-delusion, and can be transcended by seeing the true nature of being. The question of suffering and evil lies at the heart of many religions, because as humans, we cannot function without a story around why we suffer.
Traditionally, religion provided that story. In secular WEIRD countries (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic), psychology is coming to fill the void religion is leaving behind. As Thomas Szazt writes in the introduction to his book The Myth of Psychotherapy:
For me, one of the most obvious facts about psychiatry has always been that psychotherapy (exemplified by psychoanalysis) consists simply of talking and listening. Since this conversation, regardless of how pretentiously we name it, concerns the question of how people should live, it is axiomatic that psychotherapy is a ministerial rather than a medical enterprise.
Psychotherapy is inherently mystical in that it’s an exploration of the unseen realms beyond our awareness. It is confessional. It explains to us why we do what we do. In the absence of a metaphysical framework that can help us understand why we suffer, and cause one another to suffer, psychology acts as a paltry substitute.
And because evil is ever-present, so too must trauma be ever-present in our lives within the religion of psychotherapy. It is ancestral, collective, personal, historical. Trauma tears families apart, keeping them trapped in Samsara, doomed to repeat the same abuses through generations. Trauma runs through the heart of every person. The therapist must delve inside the patient and help them find their trauma. Like an evangelical healer, their job is to face evil head on to open the door to redemption, not from sin, but from trauma. If a patient believes they have no trauma, they are in denial, in the same way we can only be truly redeemed if we recognise our sinfulness, they will only be free when they recognise they are traumatised.
Like the devil, the greatest trick Trauma ever pulled was convincing people it doesn’t exist. And so it is up to the therapist, in the role of a shaman who delves into other worlds we can’t normally access, to help you find the repressed memory of your trauma, reframe it, and ultimately move toward post-traumatic growth. And in this way the evil can be transmuted and we can be born again when trauma is transformed into survival and growth.
And as the kingdom of heaven is just at hand in Millenarian Christianity, eventually all trauma can be smitten by emotional awareness. Children will be safe from offensive ideas that could hurt them. Nor will they be left alone and unwatched long enough to hurt themselves. When they grow up, they will have access to safe spaces where nobody can challenge their identity or force them to question their deepest held beliefs.
I am being hyperbolic here, and having some fun. I am also being serious. All professions have a penchant for believing they’ve found the single unifying theory. Increasingly, in certain branches of psychology and personal growth worlds, trauma is becoming that unifying theory. Good treatment must be trauma-informed. Everyone must be protected from being ‘re-traumatised.’
There is a huge amount of vital insight in the trauma worlds, and I am presenting this not as a blanket critique of trauma-informed psychology or psychotherapy. However, I think we need to zoom out and look at the bigger picture so that we can have space to reconsider this increasingly far-reaching and popular narrative in Western culture. It may ultimately be, like our memories, a blend of fact and fiction.
Safety and Closure
As Rachel Yehuda pointed out when we spoke, an increased cultural awareness of the affects of early life trauma can help a lot of people. It may also be the mark of an increasingly compassionate, thoughtful and self-aware society. One in which we recognise that what happened to us matters. As therapist Lucy Johnston puts it, a paradigm that asks ‘what happened to you?’ instead of ‘what’s wrong with you?’
A new awareness of trauma could have significant implications for our justice systems, education, relationships and beyond. At the same time, I do not want to live in a safety-first culture that tries to remove challenge in the name of preventing difficult feelings, and uses the psychology of trauma as an ostensibly evidence-based justification doing this. Instead, I yearn for our strength and resilience to be given their rightful place in our cultural understanding of ourselves alongside our wounding and vulnerability.
One reason I got interested in trauma to begin with was because of a discrepancy I noticed in the field of psychedelics. Psychedelic experiences that have changed my life have been defined by severe challenge, discomfort and emotional overwhelm. Early research points to the possibility that it may be going through this kind of emotional challenge that makes psychedelic experiences such effective mental health treatments.
When I spoke to Peter Levine about this, he made the point that psychedelics are ‘flooding’ experiences that could retraumatise us. And he’s right; every psychedelic experience is a potentially traumatic event. That’s why they’re so powerful. They teach us that what matters is our attitude in approaching an experience of such danger and promise.
And this speaks to something that came up for me writing this piece: what we believe ourselves to be is how we will experience ourselves. That is why we have to be so careful around how we conceive of ourselves, because we will make it true. If we see ourselves as resilient, flexible and robust beings, we stand a better chance of bringing that attitude into our lives than if we see ourselves as victims of giant, all encompassing force called trauma.
But some of us, like James, weren’t lucky enough to have an early life that makes it easy to adopt that kind of flexibility and confidence as adults. And for those of us, a deeper cultural understanding of trauma is vital. And there is beauty to be found here this, because more often than not, people with James’ early life experiences are the most resilient among us. Having gone through unimaginable hardship and challenge, we can still, somehow, find ways to live and thrive. And maybe it’s there we should begin asking what trauma can teach us about the human spirit, and what it can teach us about who we can become to meet the times ahead.
Paying members can access the full film interviews with Bessel van der Kolk, Rachel Yehuda and George Bonanno