bessel van der kolk: on individual and collective trauma

preface: the frame in which i’m thinking about this post has to do with how 45 and his administration is in the process of manufacturing mass trauma and the impacts that’s going to have and is already having on american and global politics.

the subject matter, though, is another section in the bessel van der kolk episode of on being. like most posts in this series this post is just a mapping out of some points van der kolk made with some added commentary from me. but first off, a quote:

DR. VAN DER KOLK: It’s very, very basic but sorely lacking in our diagnostic system is simple things like eating and peeing and pooping because they’re the foundation of everything, and breathing. These are foundational things, all of which go wrong when you get traumatized. The most elementary body functions go awry when you are terrified.

So trauma treatment starts at the foundation of a body that can sleep, a body that can rest, a body that feels safe, a body that can move.

sleeping. breathing. resting. moving. fully sensing our bodies. everywhere that i’ve seen it, trauma has one or more of those impacts on a person or group.

inability to perform these basic, foundational activities this fundamentally shifts how individuals are. in turn, that changes how they act. and depending on their proximity to political or military power, the way people act can have unbelievable consequences. (that isn’t to say that people without access to political or military power don’t have devastating consequences, but when the person with the nuclear codes has been traumatized, it’s just different than when a young child been – though this gets complicated when that trauma to the former happened when they were a child…).

individual instances of trauma impact individuals, but there are also collective traumas. for example, terrorist attacks (domestic or not) tend to create moments of collective trauma. these moments can and often are amplified by the news media. given the way trauma impacts how people are and then how they act, collective trauma undermines the well-being of entire societies. this then changes how the population is able to support or resist calls for things like war. because of an inability to think and breathe collectively (and by that i mean take a step back and not have knee-jerk reactions), i think it increases the willingness to accept the curtailing of freedom and liberty under the guise of seeking “security” because of fear. this is how autocrats and authoritarians come into power.

imo, this is happening and 45 is using it to his advantage. everyday there is a new news media story about a terrible terrorist attack somewhere, here or abroad. collective traumas are coming day after day and i can only imagine that we’re being worn down because there seems to be no countervailing force.


somewhat related but also unrelated sidenote: the irony of seeking security via war and division is that it will never work. imo, security REALLY is knowing and believing that people around you don’t want to hurt you. this isn’t achieved by aggression. it can’t be. it is achieved by trust and loving relationships. bombing someone or destroying their family or livelihood will never result in security because the act of destruction undermines trust.

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