There’s a book I’m reading now titled In An Unspoken Voice by Peter A. Levine, a man who’s done research on the causes of trauma when it lasts well beyond the end of the stressful incident and currently gets the name of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
He thinks many of us have some form of it and that it’s being approached in the wrong way. Unlike most parlor Darwinians, he’s studied the behavior of actual animals to learn how they cope with stress.
Animals, as we who watch the National Geographic channel know, live in incessant stress. If you’re prey, you’ve got to keep on high alert, for animals eager to kill and eat you! Can you imagine? The very idea would do me in.
But for the predator, things are not much better. If you don’t make your kill, your adorable cubs will go hungry. If you do, rivals could steal your dinner before you can drag it back to the lair. Males of your species, who haven’t sired your cubs personally, will try to kill them so that they can mate with you and get cubs of their own.
It never stops. And yet, as our researcher notes, among animals, PTSD is rare. When we find it, usually it’s been induced by some ethologist doing research.
So what’s their secret, these animals who live in the easy flow of their muscles, nerves and functional responses to their world?
Or rather, what’s our secret, who so easily fall victim to stressful situations that live in our memories long after the original encounters are over? What are we doing that we could do differently? Or is our stress and anxiety simply a side-effect of our humanity, and nothing to get further stressed about?
The author thinks we could do better and he gives this explanation of trauma and how to handle it. Trauma happens when we find ourselves in a situation where it would be most natural for us to flee or else to fight. But for some reason we’re prevented from doing the one or the other. Either physically prevented or socially inhibited.
We’re trapped. So we go into a third escape mode. We freeze. For a mouse to freeze might persuade the cat to leave it alone. She thinks it’s dead. She can do something else and come back to eat it later. While her back is turned, mousie can run.
In our human case, often we can’t break out and run. We’re trapped, as a child is when held down and anaesthetized. If the no-exit scene is imposed violently, or prolonged in some other way, the person targeted will have difficulty regaining the dynamic equilibrium of effective daily life. You don’t get your story back. They’ve taken it over.
I’d bet money that every single reader of this column can think of instances where this has happened to her or to him.
What’s the remedy? Well, in the clinical cases Peter Levine describes, it must be administered carefully and gradually. But it goes like this.
You must revisit (that is, vividly recall) the trauma scene and take the action, physical or other, that you were prevented from taking.
When I was a child, the Holocaust was still fresh. My parents were involved in rescue work. Survivors were often in our home. It affected me in ways I can scarcely reckon. I scarred up the faces of my dolls with a letter opener, “playing Hitler.” Nobody seemed to think that was unusual. Rescue work was playing cat and mouse with Hitler.
Of course, this is not the only situation one can think of where the targeted person can’t escape and no feasible action can remedy the wrong or remove the threat. But this one extends so deep into the past of the culture, and returns under so many new names and guises, that it qualifies as an immobilizing trap. This predator stalks the planet. It evokes in me an underlying inclination to freeze.
I can’t kill it and I can’t cure it, though I’d dearly love to do one or the other. What can I do, then? What do I do? If a case of injustice is in front of me – and has my name on it – I will fight it.
It’s never enough but
it’s all I can do.