By Making Politics Apocalyptic, Americans Give Themselves Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder

By Making Politics Apocalyptic, Americans Give Themselves Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder

In politics and society, many things are portrayed as a dramatic zero-sum game—where a big winner and a big loser is the only possibility.
Nikolas Grosfield
By

Have you heard? The next crisis is right around the corner. Your country, your state, your city—could all vanish! In one form or another, to one degree or another, this is how various politicians, pundits, and publications tend to describe problems in America today.

It could be the presidential elections, which many posit as absolutely the most important ever. Maybe we must have more—or fewer—guns. Perhaps it is immigration, where either we act now or countless Americans—for the far-right—or immigrants—for the far-left—will suffer. Climate change is killing the whole planet, but regulating emissions will wipe out every job first.

China may match or surpass the United States in power and influence someday. Then what: war? Possibly most of all so far this century: fundamentalist Islamist terrorists threaten every aspect of our society and aim to take over the world—soon. Speaking of century, recall all the hype a while back about a little non-event called Y2K?

Some doomsday predictions might become true—someday. Hiring experts to study them can be a worthy investment. The same goes for preventing or containing legitimate threats. But many perceived threats are in truth just problems or challenges. The fact that a student can flunk a class does not mean he or she has to hire ten tutors and spend every waking moment studying. An “A” grade may or may not require these things, but usually modest effort is enough to prevent an “F.”

Planning for the Worst Can Make It Happen

Yet in politics and society, many things are portrayed as a dramatic zero-sum game, where a big winner and a big loser is the only possibility. Sure, to be an “A” nation requires endless work and vigilance—and America can and should be an “A” country. But really, in “B” nations are people slaves who die left and right as they plunge irreconcilably into perdition?

In the years leading up to World War I, Europe’s “great powers” felt war would ruin them if they did not plan for it in earnest. So they developed strategies, militaries, alliances, and propaganda to the level that scholars 100 years later still dispute the inevitability of the successive cataclysm. If the scripture is true that “perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment,” might also perfect fear cast out hope, because hope involves alternatives?

Over the past decade or two—particularly since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—Americans have focused more and more on what is called post-traumatic stress disorder. As seen below, this condition may impact individuals or groups. But this article has been depicting a lesser-known issue: pre-traumatic stress disorder—especially on a communal level.

National Review summarizes forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren defining pre-traumatic stress disorder as “the mental anguish that results from preparing for the worst, before it actually happens.” The key here is “mental anguish,” since “preparing for the worst” is often a wise idea. But too much preparing may lead a person to incur a chronically anxious tunnel vision that alters or undermines their normal cognitive and emotional functionality.

Whether this is a real disorder—where the brain or body actually lose or relinquish some of their capabilities—or whether people consciously or subconsciously nurture this as a habit or a primal outlook is unknown. Research on it is minimal thus far, and possibly hard to undertake. For now, consider what it looks on a societal level. To address this, consider some studies on cultural post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Let’s Examine Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Psychotherapist Annabel McGoldrick opined the following last August: “Both sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict are collectively traumatized…They are suffering from a societal form of post-traumatic stress disorder. This shapes their view of the world, contributes to the cycle of violence witnessed over past decades and is one of the factors blocking the path to peace.” She also thinks cataclysms like the Holocaust can affect the mentality of entire societies, even those who did not experience it.

A book on China suggests the atrocious “Cultural Revolution” of the 1960s-1970s harmed untold numbers of survivors: “The population at large is suffering from a collective trauma, a kind of social post-traumatic stress disorder. We need to carry this understanding as background for evaluation of individual, couple, and family disorders. We need to…acknowledge trauma and its psychological consequences at both cultural and individual levels, because until now it has been so hard to discuss the national trauma in China.”

In her book “Cultural Melancholia,” Christina Cavedon analyzes American fiction surrounding the September 11 attacks, as well as the portrayals by media, political, and other cultural forces of those dreadful events. She refers to “national trauma” or “cultural trauma” time and again as she correlates that to a “cultural melancholia,” although notably, she thinks September 11 is but one event contributing to that collective mindset.

The New Republic references the children of Cambodians who suffered under the brutal Khmer Rouge Maoism of the late 1970s. Decades of refugee life in America has not erased the heritage of the new generations, which “have not enjoyed the upward mobility of children of immigrants from other Asian countries.”

The article goes on: “Traditionally, psychiatrists have cited family dynamics to explain the vicarious traumatization of the second generation. Children may absorb parents’ psychic burdens as much by osmosis as from stories…But researchers are increasingly painting a picture of a psychopathology so fundamental, so, well, biological [emphasis theirs],” where kids express a vulnerability “in their molecules, neurons, cells, and genes” to developing their own PTSD.

The article also mentions children of Holocaust survivors and New York City children who were in utero on September 11, 2001. Similar research examines offspring of U.S. war veterans with PTSD.

Is That a Nervous Twitch I See?

If post-traumatic stress disorder occurs on a societal level, then cultural pre-traumatic stress disorder could exist, too. It may not fit under the “biological” psychiatry noted in the preceding paragraph, but it might play in the same ballpark as “family dynamics.” Borrowing from Cavedon’s “Cultural Melancholia”—where loud voices like the press and the White House could have affected many Americans’ post-September 11 attitude—ponder again the opening of part one of this article in the following manner.

Say 10 percent of Americans sit on the “do or die” fence about the election or guns or immigration or climate change or China or terrorism or who knows how many other topics. That would mean more than 30 million people believe that large-scale danger is about to pounce.

Whether they lean left or right, they can find dozens of periodicals, organizations, and speakers to reinforce their fears, one legitimate fact—and perhaps one exaggerated analysis—at a time. Then they direct their kids to the “right” movies, museums, and media, and before long someone else’s indoctrination has become the nervous twitching of their own family and community.

Again, individuals and countries should monitor and defend against looming or potential threats. This world is absolutely fallen and dangerous. But the fear and hyperbole pervading so many headlines and coffee shop conversations undermine the discernment of one’s mind and the strength of one’s homeland.

You Don’t Have to Fear Death

Consider one other form of cultural pre-traumatic stress disorder that may be the real culprit. In its article called “Cultural PTSD” (referring to post-traumatic stress disorder, but which also relates to our topic), The Cardus Daily argues the following:

Ours is increasingly a culture without foundation—highly susceptible to every wind and wave. Insecurity is writ large into the modern psyche. And the recurring images of Sandy Hook; Seaside, New Jersey; the Boston marathon bombing; and Moore, Oklahoma serve to amplify these feelings. Safety and security elude us…Cultural PTSD further represses already neglected religious concerns. It amps up the grasping at anything that promises pseudo-security…[Quoting Oswald Chambers] ‘Worrying means we do not believe that God can look after the practical details of our lives.’ It is not the Devil that chokes out the things of faith, but rather the mundane ‘cares of this world.’ This is where unbelief begins. We do not need for our world to end, only to have our imaginations shaped by a symbolic cosmic threat for which there is no recognized spiritual solace.

In the end, sola fide—“faith alone” in the God who died for us, then came back to life—can offer a person or a people the motivation and ability to find hope. English Bible commentator Matthew Henry wrote in the 1700s: “Those that deal with God must deal upon trust…One of the principal graces of a Christian is hope, which necessarily implies a good thing to come…Faith respects the promise, hope the thing promised.”

The Cardus Daily concludes: “There is a cure for this dis-ease. Jesus said, ‘Do not let you hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?’ [John 14] Jesus too offers us a choice: a meaningful life and an even more meaningful death.”

Originally published by The Presidential Prayer Team (www.presidentialprayerteam.org). Reprinted here with permission.

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