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PTSD & the Post-COVID New Normal

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The diagnosis of PSTD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) has its historical roots in the trenches of war.  Prior to its clinical recognition as a legitimate mental health condition, terms like "shell shock" or "war fatigue" and others were used to describe the symptoms of soldiers who had experienced such shocking violence that they were unable to find their way back to emotional homeostasis.  

In 2022, most of the sufferers of stress-based illnesses like PTSD have never fired a gun, or witnessed the horrors played out on the geopolitical chessboard.  A different kind of war wages on inside human consciousness, a war whose stories are drowned out by the monotonous droning of a dismal news cycle, punctuated by advertisements for drugs and free donuts.

We’re comfortable, yet insecure.

Overfed, yet undernourished.

Thoroughly medicated, yet increasingly unwell.  

The Cultural Normalization of PTSD and Emotional Injury.

PTSD is not a disorder or even a mental illness.  It's an injury.  Like all injuries, it can be healed, but it’s a very real public health issue nonetheless. Like a slow gas leak into the corridors of our culture, things like anxiety disorders, addiction, depression, suicide, fear, social isolation, dehumanization, political tension and distrust have become cultural norms.

"The new normal," as it were.

Now, if you ask most people if they have PTSD, they'll probably say "no" unless they're part of the small 6% of the world population that's been formally diagnosed. But take a look at this list taken from the American Psychiatric association.  These are just some of the clinical symptoms of PTSD:

  • Negative thoughts about yourself, other people or the world
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships
  • Feeling detached from family and friends
  • Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder symptoms
  • Being easily startled or frightened
  • Always being on guard for danger
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast
  • Depression and Anxiety
  • Intense fear
  • Substance Abuse
  • Panic attack
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Irritability, angry outbursts or aggressive behavior
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame
  • Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories.
  • Reliving a traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
  • Upsetting dreams or nightmares about a traumatic event
  • Severe emotional distress
  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about traumatic events
  • Avoiding places, activities or people that remind you of  traumatic events

I don't know about you, but when I look at this list I can see parts of myself, especially my younger self,  though I never considered myself a victim of trauma.  It took me about 30 years to acknowledge that yes, I too had trauma despite having what I considered a pretty normal childhood.  My parents never hit me, I was never homeless, I was never in any major accidents, and because of these great privileges I assumed that I had somehow slipped through life trauma-free.  

Eventually, after a lot of soul searching, and many ayahuasca retreats, I was able to recognize how the sickness of my culture had shaped me and given rise to many of my unhealthy behaviors and thought patterns, even if my traumas seemed “small” in comparison to others.


Capital “T” and little "t” trauma.

There are different kinds of trauma. Psychologists refer to something called "capital T"" and "little t" trauma, both with their own level of symptom severity, and each with their own level of tolerance determined by what sort of environment one is accustomed to.

There are people who ruin lives with their fists, and people who ruin lives with their absence.  

Abuse by force, and abuse by neglect.  

Death by a sudden blow, or death by a thousand tiny cuts.  

The path to healing starts with honoring that your pain is valid, even if the culture doesn't validate it.

You are Many Things, but "Broken" is Not One of Them.

For the majority of people, the default treatment option for healing a mental health issue means conventional psychiatric therapy.  It doesn’t mean it’s the best, it means it’s the convention. Oftentimes it just means “this is the only option my insurance will cover."

The “professional opinion” that you have PTSD, clinical depression, generalized anxiety disorder, or any mental health diagnosis for that matter - is supposed to be the beginning of the recovery process, and for some, it is. For some, it allows validation and a true acknowledgment that something truly isn’t quite right.

For others, it's a dead end.

Hearing the words "You have PTSD" can be felt with the same emotional resonance as "You're broken" and oftentimes comes with a lot of shame and an emotional shut down.

This is one of the great flaws in modern psychology.  The diagnosis itself can become one of the major roadblocks to healing.  It becomes a focal point of undue proportion.  The patient becomes so fixated on curing the “disease” that they forget all the parts of themselves that are beautiful.  It’s all weeds, no water. People can also become so focused on decreasing their symptoms that they do not have the perspective to see their suffering is more than a personal issue.  It’s a cultural crisis.

Who Gets to Decide What "Normal" Is?

If we take a purely subjective lens, any clinical diagnosis is just a label.  It's a way to categorize (and usually medicate) a person's experience, which has disabled them from upholding society's standard of "normal" behavior.  

This begs the question: Who gets to decide what "normal" means?  

The people who write the books, that's who.

"Normal" behavior is whatever upholds the core values of its society, which in the case of most Western countries is the core value of capitalism.  

The perfect customer is the one who feels like they're inherently lacking something - the one who needs fixing.  I'm not saying that society has been maliciously engineered this way (maybe it has?), but building a culture that values share-holder profits over the health of its people and planet is destined for trouble eventually.  We have always been a country that prioritized economic growth over spiritual strength, meaning, and happiness, and the cracks are starting to show.  

The Only Way Out is Through

We all have trauma, and that's ok.  Let's talk about it.  After all, life isn't about avoiding pain, it's about integrating the pain we carry.

That's where the magic is, after all.  That's the sweet alchemy!  Turning our lead into gold.

We've been told that expressing our pain is a sign of weakness.  "Stop crying."

Our culture says there's no time to stop and heal. We have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and get back to work.

Maybe it’s actually time to rest.

Maybe it’s time to stop, reconsider shifting our cultural priorities towards the promotion of good health instead of the medication of illness.

This "new normal" they're talking about is just the "old normal" in new clothes.  I don't believe for a minute that being forbidden from seeing your family and friends, or hiding your smile behind a mask, or having everything delivered to our door is ever something we should be comfortable with.

Let’s honor our pain. Let’s talk about the way it used to be; let's share some of our disappointments, our challenges with this current “norm”, and find ways to celebrate our humanity - the part the hurts.

Honoring your pain is not a sign of weakness. It is an advanced capacity to speak truth that may be against the grain of  “we’re okay…right?”

Just as famous therapist Carl Rogers stated, “Once I accept myself as I am, then I change.” Healing begins when we begin embracing ourselves in our totality, and more importantly loving ourselves through it all..


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