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Phil Kenney

Philip Kenney is a practicing psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon. He did his post-graduate work in British Object Relations at the Washington D.C. School of Psychiatry and has taught Self Psychology as part of his private practice. A long time meditator and poet, Mr. Kenney is the author of the novel, Radiance, and a collection of poetry, Where Roses Bloom. He strives to bring together the worlds of psychology, creativity and spirituality in his work and is the author of a new book on those subjects entitled, The Writer's Crucible: Meditations on Emotion, Being and Creativity.

Does The Human Race Suffer From Post Traumatic Stress?

April 19, 2015

John Lennon probably wouldn’t read the news these days. If he were alive today, like a lot of people, he might not pick up the paper — the news is that dreadful. In fact, it is so bad in nearly every corner of the world that it seems reasonable to me to pose the question: Does the human race suffer from PTSD?

A long, long time ago, when I was a wee lad of 22, I set out on a cold November morning to drive from New York to Cincinnati in time to be in the wedding of two very good friends from college. Somewhere west of New Jersey it began to snow and it didn’t stop snowing until I passed Pittsburgh. That amounted to about eleven hours of driving through blizzard conditions, without chains or snow tires. Pretty stupid, right?

It got really bad when day turned to night and a lane and a half of drivable highway had to suffice for regular cars like mine, and the trailer trucks screaming by at nearly full speed. I gripped the wheel and pressed on, determined to make the rehearsal dinner the next day, but I was really, really scared for about ten straight hours. What I didn’t anticipate was the level of fear that set up camp in my body and emerged in full measure for years to come any time I encountered snow on the road.

Ten hours is nothing compared to what some suffer in traumatic situations that may last anywhere from days to years. Yet it was enough to change the makeup of my body and mind to dread future encounters on the road with any amount of snow and ice. The fearful anticipation of the return of an overwhelmingly frightening event is a hallmark of what we now know to be Post Traumatic Stress.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I had been introduced to PTSD the summer before the perilous drive through that early winter storm. My good friend from high school, Jeff Wilson, had returned from his tour as a marine fighting in Vietnam, and we were doing what we did in those days; looking for beer, parties and girls. It was the 4th of July weekend and we were lusting after two lovelies from Westport we met earlier in the summer. As we approached the home of the girls, a series of fireworks exploded. Luckily, I was driving because before I knew it, Jeff was on the floor of the car, trembling and tight as a cat ready to fight.

The study of trauma is relatively new to the collective knowledge of human psychology, but trauma itself is not. It is as old as human societies and, in fact, may have some bearing on the development of the structure of society, as we know it today. Just the other day I heard a report on NPR that claimed the chances of dying a violent death were 10 to 20 times greater living in the stone age than today! Trauma keeps us alert to dangers that threaten our survival.

We also know that trauma causes changes in the DNA structure of our genes. It makes me wonder if adaptation to traumatic experience is one of the variables that led to the particular evolutionary brain development of homo sapiens? Stands to reason that those capable of adapting to trauma would have a survival advantage over those whose brains were less adaptive, or less traumatized.

To date the evolution of our nervous system has not seen fit to eliminate the parasympathetic system and the capacity for rest and relaxation. And yet, it seems we are engaging that mode of being less and less as society speeds up faster and faster. A few years ago I was fortunate to travel to Africa and spend about ten days in the bush with the great mammals. I found it very surprising how little time these remarkable animals actually put it in top gear and went full speed. The time spent in the parasympathetic relaxed state was at least 10 to 1 that of the sympathetic full speed mode. Even moving from here to there, the lions, elephants and gazelles walked at slow meandering pace: no hurry, no sweat.

We seem to have reversed this natural process. Busy Town, USA is on the go 24-7, and this is a badge of honor in most circles, is it not? Of course this is one of the primary indications of PTSD: constant hyper-alertness and compulsive adrenalized activity are hallmarks of a system stuck in the trauma response. This is the most common reaction to trauma; the other being a passive, numbing retreat from life and feeling.

Two things stand out in the psyche of the traumatized. The first is an ever-present fear that the trauma will be repeated. Remember my friend, Jeff, who dove for cover on the floor of my car? My dog, Magic, after living through a Civil War enactment in the park behind our house was forever terrified by loud sounds and took to hiding in our closet whenever a holiday called for fireworks.

The other terrible outcome of trauma is that our feelings, our own inner self, become a threatening source capable of re-traumatizing the self. In other words, feelings, sensations and emotions are experienced as timeless, limitless. Fear and pain feel like they will last forever. Extraordinary psychic measures are needed to protect against this terrible, overwhelming experience. We call these measures dissociation. Is it any surprise that our culture runs from emotion? Can you detect the fear underlying the nearly frantic drive for entertainment and distraction?

What is so troubling and perplexing on the cultural level and the level of the individual is why trauma is repeated with such regularity. Why do countries that have been so traumatized inflict more suffering on themselves? Why do individuals who have been abused set themselves up to be exploited again and again? This is the overriding problem challenging psychotherapy and the huge obstacle that frustrates attempts at world peace.

Trauma repeats itself again and again. We may agree as a people to be frightened at the emergence of groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and the horrible and gruesome acts of murderous violence they perpetrate on the people they hate. We may agree that this is a new and terrible threat to the world. Just watching the news is traumatizing. But, what may really haunt us in the unconscious realm is the knowledge that this isn’t new at all. Whether we call it barbaric, evil, savage or inhuman, this sort of slaughter has been going on for millennia. From the cave man to Genghis Khan to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and a lot of it right here on the bloody soil of our own country. Social progress does not eliminate destructive tendencies.

By recognizing the reality of trauma and the ubiquitous presence of the trauma response in the psychic fabric of human beings everywhere on this globe, I hope we can adopt a new way of relating to ourselves, and others. For starters, let’s get rid of the hard-hearted demand that people, “Just get over it.” You don’t just get over trauma. It leeches into every cell in the body and into the vulnerable flesh of the brain, and it takes years of hard work in psychotherapy, hours of practice at meditation and yoga and tons of support and love from one community or another to modify the effects of trauma and return to a more balanced state of being.

All people are created equal, but not the same. Some are born with a constitutional makeup that is more resilient than others. Can some people survive trauma with less damage than others? Yes. Have some people suffered worse trauma than others? Yes. Do all people carry the traumatic history of our species within their DNA making them susceptible to the swings of such symptoms as, fits of uncontrolled anger, bouts of overwhelming anxiety, periods of detachment and apathy? Yes. What about the rich and famous? The 1%? Are they free of these sufferings? I don’t think so. Theirs may be more camouflaged by the glitter of gold: a portrait of Dorian Gray. But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find abounding anxieties and powerful currents of a relentless and erosive sense of deficiency: there is never enough.

Given the circumstances of our biology and neurology, none will come through unscathed. What this means, if we are all carrying, and have been subject to, the transmission of varying measures of traumatic experience, then we are all worthy of the deepest compassion and understanding. Kindness helps and so does a scientific explanation of what happens in the body and the brain when trauma has invaded.

Let’s look at a particular case. Many years ago, at a time in our cultural development when the pervasive position towards sexual abuse was one of denial, psychiatric wards were full of women, diagnosed as borderline personality disorder, manic-depressive, psychotic or worse. It turns out that the majority of those women had suffered a traumatizing sexual assault in their lifetime, many of them in childhood. These women deserved, but did not receive, the greatest compassion and understanding. With today’s understanding of PTSD, many of these same women can be helped before they end up hospitalized.

If the entire human race has evolved in spite of, and because of traumas, if the human nervous system is in a fragile state, susceptible to overwhelming vulnerability and emotional flooding, resulting in unreasonable behaviors that either perpetuate suffering or inflict it on others, then aren’t we the people living scared and in need of loving understanding and forgiveness in a big, big way? Don’t we need to lay down privileged notions of what is crazy, evil or worthless? Doesn’t an appreciation for the realities of PTSD, and the array of unfortunate coping strategies originating from fear put to rest once and for all the notion of wickedness? Forgive us our trespasses.

Last week, while driving home across the Burnside Bridge after a hard day of work I was taken aback by a strange sound to my right. I turned to see a bicyclist cursing, and throwing his bicycle to the pavement in an act of fury. His face was etched with hatred and he left his bike to walk back some twenty yards to pick up a bundle that had dropped from the rear fender, which was laden with bags of belongings and recyclable cans. My first reaction was straight from my mother’s mouth, “what a nut,” was her/my response. I quickly noticed that I was frightened. I felt threatened: would this madman turn on me? Did he hate me, and my privileged red Prius?

The traffic was stopped and so I was there when he returned to his bike, still yelling and cursing his situation while fastening his bag back to the rack. I had a moment to take a better look at this man now that I realized he had no intention of coming after me. I was safe and able to see the chiseled edges of trauma written on his face: the chronic tension, the aging wear of fear and consuming rage.

I watched him ride off and take a fast turn onto Martin Luther King Ave. He was still cussing out the gods, his fate and the motorists speeding past. My heart tumbled and I felt bad for my quick and easy judgments. I felt the fear begin to ease out of my limbs, and I thought, there we go; the unwanted, despised and untouchable truth of our naked condition. Homeless. No refuge. No peace. It seemed presumptuous to say a prayer, or think that I could offer something up to make the world a better place for him, or the rest of us. So when the light changed and I drove off I let myself ache: a long ache for the enormity of what human beings live with.

I truly hope it is not offensive to anyone who has suffered a traumatic experience whether abuse of any kind, war, or crippling poverty, when I suggest that perhaps the human race is suffering, and shaped by PTSD. I hope by attributing this condition to the species as a whole it does not cheapen or dilute the meaning of this condition to any particular life experience.

Take care, try a little tenderness with those you know and love and friendliness with those you don’t. And many thanks for reading.

Stay tuned for the May edition of Philz Blog: The “Self Project” and Creativity.





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One Response

  1. Steve Mueller says:

    Thoughtful and provocative, Phil.

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