Helplessness = Trauma

I have been thinking about my, and our, experience of helplessness in the face of the Gulf oil disaster. About what it feels like in our bodies to be continuously exposed to experiences in the world that we can’t control but which have large, perhaps even life changing effects on our lives.

In the last 50 years or so, psychology as a science has become increasingly wise about experiences that wound the soul. The kind of happenings that lock up a part of our brains, quite literally, from easy connection to the rest of our inner experience and cause us to emotionally get stuck in the memory. We call these experiences traumas. Trauma with a capital T.

In the current mental health definition of post-traumatic stress syndrome, a person witnesses or experiences something life-threatening, shocking, and horrific, but with one key experiential ingredient : they feel powerless.

Powerlessness is what seems to turn a terrible experience into a Trauma; the inability to respond. Being able to do something in the midst of a rape, or fire, shooting or car accident seems to be the way that human beings help themselves mentally manage the horrors of life.

In all of human history, with the exception of the last decade, the way that human beings were exposed to the darkest part of life was that they lived it. Civil war, tornado, forest fire, genocide, death in childbirth were all experiences limited to the people who lived them in the Now. The average person may have heard about a battlefield massacre hundreds of miles off weeks after it was all done; the sinking of the Titanic days after the ship sat at the bottom of the ocean. The physical distance and the oral or written account were buffers from the sense of immediacy of pain. And while illness, death, disease, and war came very close to everyone, the human struggle had a local feel.

I am concerned for us in the age of constant media exposure. Not only do we hear about the devastation of Haiti or Guatemala after earthquake, we are taken there by professional as well as citizen video, blog, radio, television and internet streams. Rivers of emotional information, rushing at us day and night, eliciting in most of us sense of chronic helplessness. We are being exposed to suffering not in the scale of a single lifespan, but on a world-wide scale, a level most of us can’t possible sustain. And the only way that most of us have of being less helpless, of sending money, is a weak antidote to the larger emotional burden the river of news places on us.

When we watch the oil wash up on the unique marshlands at the mouth of the Mississippi, or see a dead dolphin or pelican laying on the beaches of northern Florida, we layer yet another experience of helplessness on our brains. Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq. Over and over. It’s trauma, with a small t.

Will we all become a species so accustomed to the experience that we will adopt what is called a “learned helplessness,” where sooner or later nothing moves us any more, and we emotionally disconnect from the needs and suffering of others?

What do you do to limit the exposure you and your family have to trauma you can’t fix, suffering you can’t stop, horror you can’t control? How can you spare yourself and your children from emotional wounds of trauma caused by round-the-clock media?

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