Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Our Numbed Society: America's PTSD Part 2

Yesterday I shared the idea that America, as a society, is manifesting symptoms of PTSD. There are three sets of these symptoms, and today we'll be looking at symptoms of numbing. People with PTSD go to great lengths to avoid and/or numb themselves to feelings and experiences related to the trauma.

Specifically, to be diagnosed with PTSD, there must be at least three of the following symptoms present:

Efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the trauma. Traumatized people often come across as angry. It's not that they don't have a right to be angry at the people who traumatized them. But they're often just angry all the time at everyone. Anger is a very effective defense mechanism against other, more uncomfortable feelings.

If there's one thing Americans are, it's angry. You need look no further than Capitol Hill. We don't just disagree, we think the other side is a threat and evil. We are locked and loaded. And we're rude.

So, what feelings are we avoiding? Fear. If you think back to how you felt on September 11, you weren't mad. You were horrified, and you were scared. Pretty quickly, you were sad. If someone had asked you if you were mad at the people who did this you would have said yes, but anger was not the primary emotion.

The thing is that fear doesn't feel good. It feels weak. So does sadness. Anger feels strong. So we stick with anger -- at each other, at other countries, at whomever. Do you remember that feeling of togetherness we all had right after the attacks? Have you wondered why we can't seem to get it back? Because we came together in fear and in grief, and as much as we might like togetherness, we don't want to go back and feel those things again.

Efforts to avoid activities, places, or people that arouse recollections of the trauma. There was a contingent of people who got mad at President Obama for visiting Ground Zero after bin Laden was killed. They said he was politicizing September 11th (and I would argue that ship sailed a long time ago, but let's put that aside).  But Obama didn't go there to give a speech or do a victory lap. He went to lay a wreath. He went to acknowledge grief. That's a no-no.

Inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma. There are certainly things about 9-11 that none of us will ever forget, but here's a test question: Following the September 11th attacks, what was the stated motivation of Al Qaeda for attacking the U.S.? If you said something like, "They hate us for our freedoms," you're not alone -- that is our dominant societal narrative. It was started by President Bush the same week as the attacks. And, if I may be so bold, it's wrong. At the time of the attacks, Al Qaeda wanted the U.S. to withdraw its troops from bases in Saudi Arabia, which it considers sacred ground. We forgot the motivation for the attack almost as soon as it happened.

Markedly diminished interest or participation in significant activities. This is a tough one. "Significant activities" for individuals are easier to define. However, I'm struggling to remember the last time it seemed like everyone was having a joint experience -- like the last episode of M*A*S*H, or even the Superbowl. Is it me, or is it just harder for us to all decide that something, other than a disaster or trauma, is important these days?

Feeling of detachment or estrangement from others. We know who our allies are in official terms. But what foreign country do we as Americans truly respect as partners these days? I can think of no one. We have become a very lonely country in a lot of significant ways. You can blame politics or policies for this, but it's also the manifestation of a gut feeling that no one really understands us.

Restricted range of affect (e.g., unable to have loving feelings). As discussed above, our primary societal emotion is anger. We don't feel joint happiness or pride anymore. We don't "put aside politics" for any common purpose. We want Congress to compromise, as long as they don't compromise on the things we want. We have lost the ability to have mixed emotions, and changing one's mind about something is weak. This is what a restricted range of emotions looks like -- anger and black and white thinking with no nuance.

Sense of foreshortened future. There is a conventional wisdom in America that the United States is no longer a superpower, or that we won't be one for much longer. Polls show we believe America is headed in the wrong direction. Every new law or policy (passed or just proposed) on both sides of the aisle is met with doomsday scenarios about how it will mean the end of America as we know it. It's one thing to say you don't like an idea, and quite another to think we can't survive it. We don't, as a country, feel very confident about our future.

Tomorrow I'll look at the third cluster of symptoms -- hyper-arousal. Later in the week, we'll examine why 9-11 impacted us this way when other things didn't, and at what kind of "treatment" we might recommend for our traumatized society.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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