Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World: A Guide for Activists and Their Allies
Our Animal Emotions
People are animals. Animals have feelings. Animals have bodies that experience and express their feelings. Like other physiological processes, feelings persist even if they are ignored or denied.
One of the myths of human superiority is that we can transcend our feelings, while other animals are bound by theirs. This goes along with the idea that we can and should supersede our bodies, while animals are always bound to theirs. This idea is so deeply embedded in so many cultures that even animal liberationists can catch themselves implicitly embracing it.
When we refuse to recognize our own physical limitations or expect ourselves to be exempt from the emotional factors that affect other animals, we come dangerously close to the mind over matter mentality that leads to biotechnology and other efforts to reshape the natural world according to our fantasies of omnipotence and control.
In truth, life follows its own rules, not ours. We have no more control over our animal emotions than any other vertebrate. We can choose what we do with our feelings and even, to a certain extent, whether or not we fully experience them. But we cannot elect not to be angry about injustice or sad about loss any more than a chicken can choose not to be afraid of a hawk or frustrated by a cage.
Feelings can be both frightening and alluring because they remain undomesticated, no matter how tame we otherwise have become. But the only thing to fear about feelings is fear of feelings. Like rivers, feelings are most dangerous when dammed or inappropriately channelled. Like rivers, they are going to flow anyway and may become unpredictably destructive if not allowed to follow their natural paths.
Often, activists hesitate to talk, or even think, about their own feelings because the suffering of others is comparatively so much greater. The motives for this self-suppression are altruistic, but the results can be counterproductive. When the physiological and psychological effects of traumatic experiences lessen productivity or lead to burnout, what seemed like self–sacrifice can turn out to be hurtful to others.
Facing a line of police officers in riot gear, marching in a gay pride parade as beer cans and insults rain down on your head, slipping under an electrified fence with a rescued kitten under your coat...all of these and any of a number of other not uncommon activist activities cause the human nervous system to react in predictable ways. Being maced by those police officers, injured by those beer bottles, or grabbed by security guards before slipping under the fence, would lead to even more bodily stress. Confronting danger, hostility, or the injury of others over and over again can cause stress to accumulate in the muscles and the mind. Being strip searched, beaten, or locked up offer even more insults to the brain and the rest of the body. These cannot be wished away by comparisons to the greater sorrows of others.
As will be shown in the next chapter, activists often encounter traumatically stressful situations. Studies of people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have shown that trauma can lead to changes in brain chemistry, blood flow, metabolism, and brain structure. Depression is another common consequence of prolonged or repetitive exposure to injustice and suffering. As with PTSD, depression often is accompanied by changes in the nervous system or metabolism and these can significantly impair an activist’s ability to function.
If you have higher levels of the hormone norepinephrine, lower levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, and abnormal blood flow in your brain, telling yourself that animals or other people have it worse is not going to make the resulting problems go away. If these problems keep you from getting proper rest, interfere with your ability to concentrate, or compromise your ability to maintain productive working relationships with other people, then the efficacy of your activism is likely to decline. Neither stress nor depression dutifully disappear if denied. To the contrary, both tend to get worse if ignored. Luckily, both can be eased by simple steps like talking to other people about your feelings. Many of the physiological aspects of post-traumatic stress and depression also respond well to medications and other physical interventions.
The first step is to remember that you are an animal and that animals have feelings. The feelings associated with post-traumatic stress and depression are the normal responses of an organism subjected to unnatural stress. The sooner we learn to recognize and respond to signs of stress and depression in ourselves and each other, the stronger our movements will become. In other words, if you’re going to be helpful to anybody, you’re going to have to pay attention to your body.
Our Bodies, Our Selves
Our Bodies, Ourselves. That’s the title of the groundbreaking self-help text by the Boston Women’s Health Collective. Once a mimeographed pamphlet, the guide has grown into a book hefty enough to serve as a doorstop.
The premise of the book is that women have the right to control their own bodies. That might seem self-evident to young women in the United States today, but it wasn’t so long ago in this country that male doctors routinely sterilized women without their consent and would not operate on them without their husbands’ permission. Even now, married women in many countries may not make their own medical decisions. Permission for surgery or other procedures is granted or withheld by sons or husbands, in much the same way that people in the U.S. make veterinary decisions for the companion animals who are, under the law, their property.
In such a context, “our bodies, ourselves” stands as a statement of fact and a call to action. But the phrase has even deeper meanings. Historically and still today, men of many cultures have sought to transcend their own bodies while reducing women and animals to their body parts. Seeing themselves as more rational and self-determined, men claim the right to rule over those they see as more emotional, impulsive, and bound to bodily rhythms. Reduced to their bodies, women and animals are liable to be made into meat either literally, as in butchery, or figuratively, as in pornography. As a rallying cry, the feminist slogan “our bodies, ourselves” rejects the nonsensical notion that it is somehow shameful to be one’s body. The slogan also rejects the idea that our bodies are objects subject to ownership. We don’t say “our bodies, our property.”
Does being our bodies mean that we are nothing more than the sum of our body parts? No. Every living thing—daffodil, duck, or truck driver—has a synergy, a multiplicative energy that leads the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts.
One way to make sense of this is to think of living beings as systems rather than objects. The system that is you includes not only your brain and your blood cells but also the bacteria that digest the food in your gut. Mitochondria with their own DNA live in your cells, doing the work of converting organic materials into energy. You couldn’t live without them.
People are open systems, meaning that we are constantly changing in response to external forces, as well as relentlessly taking in and letting go of elements like air and water. You eat some broccoli, and the pantothenic acid in it becomes part of your hormones. You take a deep breath on a smoggy day, and particulate pollutants filter into your alveoli, cross the lung/blood barrier, and enter your bloodstream.
Gravity holds you down. Sunlight penetrates your skin and is transubstantiated into vitamin D. Weather determines how many calories you need and how much water you perspire. How much water you retain helps to determine the sodium/potassium balance in your cells, thereby affecting the electrical activity of the neurons in your brain. You change constantly. You are steadily shedding skin cells as you read these words. The make-up of your body is very different than when you were seven years old. And still you are the same person.
And yet you are not the same person. This can be cause for both sadness and happiness. After a loss or a dreadful awakening, we may feel nostalgic sorrow for who we were before we endured or learned such a terrible thing. At the same time, the fact of constant change means that hope is always possible.
These are the paradoxical facts of life: Like all other animals, we are our bodies and we are more than our body parts. Like rivers, we are always changing while remaining the same. Like flowering plants and pollinating bees, we have our own identities but are not possible without the aid of other beings. That’s pretty scary. Most of us like to think of ourselves as unitary beings with clear boundaries. Even those of us who come from cultures where the psychological sense of self is communal tend to experience our physical selves as bounded by our own skins.
You may find it both unsettling and liberating to realize that you are a process rather than an object, a verb rather than a noun. When we affirm that we are our bodies but deny that our bodies are property, we undermine one of the most destructive ideas in history:that people are something other than animals. Besides being factually untrue and leading to all kinds of atrocities against other animals, this idea helps to maintain a number of unnatural divisions, such as the distinction between mind and body and the segregation of people into races. When we affirm that our bodies are systems within systems, we undermine another dangerously divisive idea that people can and should be separate from the rest of the world.
As I said in the preface and probably will say again a hundred times before we are through, unnatural divisions are both causes and effects of trauma. Ruptured relations create the conditions that lead to trauma. Trauma creates further fractures, both within and between people and their natural and social environments. Any idea that creates or maintains an unnatural division both makes trauma more likely and makes recovery from trauma more difficult.
If you’ve ever studied introductory biology, you know that people are indeed animals as we ourselves define the term. But you still may be balking at calling yourself an animal or wondering why I am making such a big deal out of it.
If you are a member of a group that has been “treated like animals” or been put down by comparisons to animals, you may find it especially emotionally difficult to say, &lduo;Yes, I am an animal.” If such comparisons have never troubled you or your ancestors, you may be inclined to say, “Yes, I am an animal—so what?”
By way of explanation, let’s look at some of the problematic divisions created by our imagined separation from and superiority to other animals:
- The isolation of human animals from their enveloping ecosystems leads to pollution and manipulation of nature by people. The effects of these include climate change and nuclear weaponry, both of which lead directly to calamity.
- The estrangement of human animals from other animals leads to cruelties including factory farming and extinction of species. The self-deception and suppression of natural sympathy required to perpetrate or enjoy the products of such cruelties leave people lonely and out of touch with themselves.
- The elevation of “people” over “animals” constructs a category of sentient living beings without rights. As long as that category exists, the process of “dehumanization” will continue to be deployed to push one or another group of people into it.
So, we can see that the most catastrophic problems facing our planet, as well as the most oppressive processes among people, are all related in some way to the denial of human animality.
(Here we are, not very far into the first chapter, and already it may seem that we’ve lost our way, straying far afield from the practical problems faced by people who confront trauma in the course of their activism. Stay with me for just a little while longer, even if you’re not sure where I’m headed. When we get where we’re going, maybe you will agree with me that we only seemed lost because we’ve been trained not to see certain avenues and intersections.)
What we believe about human nature delimits what we believe to be possible for ourselves, others, and the world we share. If we believe that people are “naturally” this way or that, we will be unlikely to try to get people to change their ways, even if those ways hurt people, animals, or the planet. On the flip side, if we believe that it is “unnatural” to be gay or to feel a certain way, we may contort ourselves by trying to be what we just can’t be.
Ideas about human nature can become self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, as Ofer Zur has shown, the myth that war is part of human nature and thus there have always been wars—a myth that can be shown to be precisely that: a myth—leads people to be less likely to join efforts to stop war. This, of course, makes it much easier for those who enjoy the thrills or profits of warfare to get their way. So it’s very important for us to interrogate our ideas about human nature, constantly asking, “Where did I get this idea? Why do I think it’s true?”
The idea that we are an especially special species is widespread. Even people who work for the liberation of animals sometimes tend to see people as somehow set apart from other animals. In part, this may be a natural function of species. Dogs seem to care most about the opinions of other dogs. Chickens exhibit a strong preference for other chickens. Maybe all animals perceive the world in terms of animals like me and everybody else. But human exceptionalism goes much deeper than that. We are so determined to set ourselves apart that we make up stories and distort reality.
Albert Einstein called our idea of ourselves as unique, discrete beings apart from the rest of the universe “a kind of optical delusion.” Where, when, and why did some people decide that they were something more special than every other species of animal? What led them to sever their kinship ties with other creatures, setting themselves apart as isolated and embattled would–be rulers of the earth5 Nobody knows for sure. The first people to “break” or “domesticate” animals didn’t leave written records to let us know what they were thinking. But the environmental evidence suggests a simple answer: trauma.
At different times in different places, people have responded to catastrophe by protectively exempting themselves from the rules that govern the rest of the world. That’s what people are trying to do when they embrace gods or taboos that they believe protect them from famine and natural disasters. They try to cut themselves out of the web of life in a vain attempt to escape the vulnerability that comes with being alive.
Whether or not this account of the origins of what might be called human exceptionalism is accurate, it is certainly true that the people of all the conquering cultures of the world both think and act as if natural laws do not apply to them. How else to account for the quibbling over the details of the Kyoto Treaty as we hurtle headlong toward increasingly inescapable climatic catastrophe? How many economic crashes have resulted from the bizarre belief that unlimited growth is possible? How many people have ravaged their own bodies by ignoring their animal needs for food and sleep?
Finally, we arrive at the junction of cultural practices and individual activists. Like many other people driven by urgent purposes, activists—including animal liberation activists who really ought to know better!—tend to forget that they are animals. The ability to go without sleep or work without taking a lunch break is often mistaken for a measure of dedication. In consequence, social movements are much smaller than they ought to be, simply because so many people burn out or become convinced they don’t have what it takes.
When traumatic events occur—as they too often do—the exhausted bodies of over-stressed activists may not have the resources to cope with the physical stress. Used to suppressing rather than expressing their more vulnerable feelings, activists may have even more difficulty than other people in managing the normal emotional responses to upsetting events.
Activists who want to be effective through a lifetime of long, hard struggle must admit that they are animals. That includes embracing our animal emotions.
“Fear is your friend.” That’s what I tell my public speaking students, who inevitably look at me like I’m crazy. “What do you do,” I ask, “when you hear a gunshot or see a truck hurtling toward you?” Then they get it. Fear tells you that something dangerous is happening and gives you the physical resources to fight back or get away. Without fear, our species would not be here.
Emotions are physical things. That’s why we use the same wor—“feeling”—to describe both emotions and sensations. The “pain” of a sprained ankle and the “pain” of a broken heart are both real physical processes. Like other physical processes, feelings have evolved because they are useful. Feelings have functions. The point of pain is to tell you something. If you ignore the pain of a sprain, you’re likely to re-injure your ankle. If you ignore the pain of a broken heart, you may end up repeating the same old relationship mistakes.
Ignore fear, and you may find yourself in even more trouble. People often do not attend to their own misgivings about people or situations only to later regret not listening to that inner voice saying “beware.” There are times, however, when fear is less than friendly. Leftover fear from past trauma can make you afraid of safe people or lead you to panic or freeze in the face of new dangers. That’s why we need to find ways to feel and release, rather than ignore and store, our emotions.
Fear is just one of the feelings commonly associated with trauma. The other feelings that tend to arise in relation to trauma include sadness, anger, and shame. Fear interacts with the other three in sometimes surprising ways. Anger and sadness also have a complicated relationship, as do anger and shame.
Every emotion has its own collection of physical sensations and associated thoughts. Because of their evolutionary origins, basic emotions like fear are rooted in patterns of nervous system activity that in general have predictable effects on people.
Even though the biological bases of emotion are the same for all of us, everybody experiences feelings in their own way. Even though our cultures tell us how to think about feelings, two people from the same culture still can think about feelings in very different ways. Everybody’s body and life history is unique. Even identical twins raised in the same home have singular experiences that, over time, translate into physical and psychological differences.
All of this variability makes it tricky to talk about feelings in a book like this. For example, most scholars seem to include disgust and guilt in the list of emotions experienced by everyone. I, however, experience disgust as more of a sensation than an emotion. Guilt, on the other hand, feels to me more like a thought— “I did something wrong” or “I failed to do something that I ought to have done”—that then leads to feelings such as sadness, shame, anger, or some combination thereof.
That leads to another tricky question: the difference between thoughts and feelings. Both involve the brain and can be triggered either by sensory perceptions or by internal processes such as previous thoughts and feelings. Both can be located in electrical and chemical exchanges within the nervous system, but are experienced as much more than that. Both can occur either within or outside of conscious awareness. The only distinction seems to be that the processes we call feelings often involve physical sensations such as the shaky legs of fear or the flushed face of shame. Could it be that feelings are just a special kind of thought or vice versa? Could they be the same thing? On the other hand, “thoughts” and “feelings” may just be words that we made up to describe our internal experiences. Maybe they aren’t things at all.
I’ve got a practical reason for bringing up these seemingly abstract questions. Remember, trauma is a kind of rupture or break, an unnatural separation of some kind. Right now, our social and physical environments are marked by traumas of all kinds, from ethnic clashes to the hole in the ozone layer. It’s possible that our internal worlds are cut up by unnatural divisions, too. When we think of thoughts and feelings as different kinds of things, rather than as unified processes, we may—yet again—be imagining or creating disconnections where there need not be. That said, let’s look at fear, shame, anger, and sadness as they relate to one another, and how they arise in the context of trauma.
How do you feel when you’re afraid? Does your heart pound? Does your stomach twist? Does everything look a little bit different? After a big scare like a barely-avoided automobile accident, have your legs ever felt rubbery? All of these sensations are associated with the fight-or-flight response, which is a pattern of nervous system activity that is aroused when the part of your brain called the limbic system senses danger.
Linked to the rest of the world by your sense organs and to the rest of your body by your autonomic nervous system, the brain structures collectively called the limbic system are responsible for emotion, motivation, and the association of memories with emotions. At times of danger, the limbic system sends out biochemical signals that trigger the fight-or-flight response, which prepares the body for action. The heart pumps extra blood to the arm and leg muscles (hence that pounding heart). Digestion and other nonessential functions are put on hold so that all your energy can go to dealing with the danger (hence that lurching stomach). The pupils dilate for more sensitive vision (hence the feeling that everything looks different). All of this is accomplished by means of hormonal signals. After the danger has passed, hormones like adrenaline are still floating around in your bloodstream (hence those shaky legs).
How does your limbic system know when a situation is dangerous? When the combination of incoming sensations and stored memories say so. We fear some things instinctively, but most fears have been learned. And that’s where fear can lead us astray. For evolutionary reasons, the limbic system learns fear very quickly. Even one association between a sensation and danger can lead to an enduring association of that sensation with danger. If, for example, your eyes happened to fasten on a peculiar shade of blue during a life-threatening experience, you might find yourself mysteriously feeling the urge to flee the next time you happen to catch sight of that particular hue. Luckily, fear can be unlearned. Because fear is so basic, treatment of problems like phobias and panic attacks, if these are not complicated by other factors, can often be accomplished relatively easily.
But those aren’t the only problems associated with fear. One common complication is that people do not recognize fear when they feel it. When they start to feel fear, they may experience it as a series of mysterious and scary somatic (or bodily) sensations. This can lead to a spiral of panic.
Some people have been taught to see fear as a sign of weakness and feel ashamed of it. Others cannot tolerate the implied vulnerability of feeling afraid. When they feel the feelings of fear, they may experience and express anger instead. Because people have so much more sympathy for fear than for anger, people who unconsciously use that defense strategy often don’t get much empathy. That can lead them to feel even less comfortable feeling or showing vulnerability. Or they may feel angry about the lack of empathy. Either way, a spiral of anger that is actually rooted in fear can end up hurting them and their relationships.
Fear of feelings is a common problem. Many people are scared of sorrow, fearing that it will engulf them. They, too, may substitute anger for the feared feeling. Fear of feelings also leads people to use various defense mechanisms that allow them not to experience undesired emotions. Sometimes it works out, as when sublimation is used to channel feelings into creative and socially responsible activities. But, most often, efforts to evade emotions go wrong. Sometimes the defense mechanism itself causes trouble, as when projection leads people to attribute their own anger to other people or when somatization turns sadness into a stomach ache that won’t go away. Either way, the avoided feelings usually end up coming out anyway, often more hurtfully than if they had been experienced and expressed right away.
Shame is the most social emotion. Shame has to do with being seen by other people, either in reality or in imagination. That’s why the physical manifestations of shame—blushing, looking down, hiding one’s face in one’s hands, shrinking, turning away, etc.—all have to do with covering up or hiding from the eyes of others.
There’s something squirmy about shame. When we feel it, we want to hide not only from the eyes of others but also from ourselves. When in the grip of shame, I’ve often felt a physical urge to walk away from myself or somehow shrug out of my skin. Shame is the flip side of pride. Healthy pride is the opposite of shame. Healthy pride can arise as a result of achievement but, originally and continually, pride comes from affiliation with others. Evolutionarily, shame helped our ancestors by motivating them to stay connected to the social groups without which they could not have survived. Pride was the reward for maintaining such vital connections.
Happy, healthy pride comes from strong and genuine social bonds within families and communities. In contrast, artificial bonds like nationalism and ethnic pride are responsible for all sorts of violence. Shame experts Thomas Sheff and Suzanne Retzinger call nationalism a kind of “pseudo-bond” that makes up for deficits in societies “based on threatened or inadequate bonds.” Again, we see how alienation leads to violence, or, in other words, trauma leads to more trauma.
Unfortunately, it’s the victims of and witnesses to violence who often end up feeling shame. Helplessness often leads to a feeling of shame, and this can be one of the most distressing post-traumatic stress reactions. But why? Why should helplessness lead to shame, even in people who do not consciously believe that there’s anything shameful in weakness? As Sheff and Retzinger say, “shame causes and is caused by alienation.” This helps us to understand why helplessness and shame are linked. In theory, there’s no reason to feel ashamed of being helpless. And yet, many of us do experience helplessness as a shameful ordeal. Perhaps this is because, when helpless, we feel utterly alone. Our bodies are programmed to respond to that feeling of aloneness with shame in order to motivate us to do whatever we need to do to regain the safety of the social group. In cultures that highly value individualism, that shame may be complicated by the idea that one ought to be stronger and more self-reliant. In other words, one may feel that one ought not be estranged from sources of help and that one ought not to need help anyway!
Whether or not I have correctly identified the reasons for the link between helplessness and shame, that link does exist and is responsible for some of the most problematic and intractable post-traumatic stress reactions.
Shame is a difficult feeling to endure. While in the grip of physical shame, people often feel acutely physically uncomfortable. Helen Lewis, who has written perhaps the most perceptive book about shame, notes that “at the same time that it seeks to disappear, the self may be dealing with an excess of autonomic stimulation, blushing or sweating or diffuse rage, experienced as a ‘flood’ of sensations.” People are often ashamed of feeling ashamed, leading the feeling to spiral in intensity until it becomes unbearable. Because nobody is comfortable with shame, even therapists sometimes politely pretend not to notice it, with the effect that nobody talks about it. Thus, the feeling of wanting to hide burrows more and more deeply underground.
Because it is so uncomfortable, shame is often suppressed or countered by another emotion, most often anger. Anger felt in response to shame can be useful if it is felt toward a legitimate target and expressed appropriately. But, too often, inappropriate rage arises in response to shame. This may be acted out violently or displaced into compulsive activity. Rage may also be met by more shame, in what is known as the shame–rage spiral. That’s what happens when a person feels ashamed, then enraged, then ashamed of being enraged, then more enraged, etc.
What’s the solution? As Lewis points out, shame that is recognized immediately and treated lightly can fade away more easily. If you’ve ever felt embarrassed about tripping on the sidewalk and then laughed at yourself for taking something so silly seriously, you know how that can work. Shame that sticks around can be more troublesome to shake, because it cannot be expressed and let go in quite the same way that sadness can be released by crying, or anger by yelling. Here, the key seems to be acceptance by a valued other. Having just one other person hear what you have experienced while still offering you empathy and positive regard can help to send stubborn shame away. Along the same lines, self-confidence and strong social support can make it easier to recognize and shrug off shame as soon as it appears. Therefore, anything that activists can do to enhance their own self-confidence, and anything activist communities can do to strengthen their social bonds, will make it easier for activists to cope with shame reactions to traumatic events.
Anger ranges from annoyance to rage. Observation of human infants suggests that anger is an instinctive response to pain.
The physical sensations of anger are essentially the same as those of fear. This is because the body’s fight-or-flight response to danger prepares people to either aggressively defend themselves or fearfully run away.
Cultural socialization teaches children how to label and express their fight-or-flight responses. According to psychohistorians Carol and Peter Sterns, people in the United States “are unusually eager to conceal anger and unusually uncomfortable with its expression.” Their book on anger in American history describes “the long and complicated war against anger that many Americans have waged for a full two centuries.”
So, anger is a natural bodily response to pain and danger that is frowned upon by the dominant culture in this country. Even if you are from a culture with a more relaxed attitude toward anger, you cannot help but be affected by the dominant culture’s prescriptions and proscriptions concerning the expression of anger. People may lose status or suffer injurious punishment for expressing anger in ways not condoned by the dominant culture, or even for feeling anger deemed to be inappropriate. That means that most people in the U.S., including most activists, have complicated relationships with their own anger. Activism is one way that people channel angry feelings into socially responsible action. But what happens when activism leads to traumatic situations that provoke extreme anger or rage?
Even without emotional complications, rage is a difficult feeling to manage. Words may fail or feel inadequate. Strong bodily sensations may seem to demand some kind of physical release. It is possible to feel and discharge rage in ways that are healthy for oneself and not hurtful to others, but people from cultures where anger is repressed often have not learned how to do that.
People often push anger down or away but it always comes back to haunt them in some way. Unconscious anger can be turned against the self, resulting in depression. Anger may be inappropriately expressed. Besides being harmful to others, inappropriate expressions of anger can lead to guilt, shame, or sadness. Because anger and fear are so closely linked, they are often mixed up. Some people, ashamed of weakness, experience anger in lieu of fear. Other people are afraid of anger and experience only fear instead.
Healthy people, cultures, and organizations recognize anger as a natural animal emotion. Healthy people, cultures, and organizations make room for anger to be felt and put into words. When expressing your own anger, it’s best to use I statements such as “I feel angry about the election” or “I feel disrespected when you don’t return my calls,” rather than “George Bush makes me so mad” or “you don’t respect me at all.” If you get into the habit of verbalizing mild anger regularly, you may find that it doesn’t build up and burst out as rage. If you can learn the art of constructive conflict resolution, both talking and listening with empathy, you may find that you and the people in your life annoy or anger each other less frequently.
For the powerful anger that can follow a trauma, words may not be enough. You may need to express the rage in some sort of physical activity. If you’re very lucky, you may be able to find something to do that is related to the source of your rage, such as some kind of physical labor that furthers the cause of your activism. I once knew a woman who would take her anger to the local recycling center, where she would volunteer to crush cans and smash glass. You may need to settle for something more symbolic, like pogoing to punk music or punching a punching bag. If all else fails, just jump up and down, run around the block, wave your arms, or do anything else within your physical ability to safely discharge the muscular tension and cope with the adrenaline floating around in your bloodstream.
We feel sad when we lose something good or are unable to stop something bad from happening. Although it’s not as easy to see, sadness has an adaptive function just like other feelings. The sadness of loss motivates us to maintain relationships and hang onto valuable objects. Sadness about bad things stimulates us to do things that aid the social group.
Trauma always entails loss. Sometimes the loss is an actual injury or cost. Often, trauma leads to a loss of faith in people, deities, or a valued worldview. Very frequently, survivors of trauma feel as if they or some part of themselves has died, leaving a very different person behind. Losses must be mourned. Sadness must be felt before it can be released. Sadness for past losses must be let go so that feelings for the future and from future relationships can take its place.
Unfortunately, we’re not very good at grief. Some of us do everything we can to avoid what feels like might be unbearable sorrow. Others hang onto sadness as a way of keeping what was lost. Mourning becomes melancholia or unresolved grief. Both can lead to depression.
The interaction between sadness and anger can also lead to depression. Loss almost always leads to some kind of anger. That’s because we get mad when we are hurt. The reaction is a natural one, but many of us have been taught to feel guilty about it. Then we turn the anger against ourselves in the form of depression. Helplessness, which we’ve already seen can lead to shame, also can lead to depression. Prolonged or repetitive helplessness leads to hopelessness, which is often experienced as sadness, lack of energy, and a feeling of futility.
Like other feelings, sadness must be felt and expressed before it can be let go. However, sadness can be counteracted by happiness and laughter. Genuine smiles trigger hormones that lead to a temporary feeling of relief. Laughter uses many of the same muscles as crying and can discharge pent-up tensions. When you are struggling with sadness, don’t run away from it, but seize every opportunity to balance it with a bit of happiness. Let your sorrows go as soon as you can, but hang onto happiness as long as it lasts. Stop and consciously savor the sight of pretty flowers or the good feeling that comes from a friendly encounter. I once gave that advice to a good friend who was dealing with a deep depression. Many years later, she told me that that advice was the most important thing I ever said to her and that she continues to find it useful deliberately to enjoy any happiness that comes her way. I do it, too. I hope you will try it.
When you were born you were very small—much smaller than you are now. Probably, you started out somewhere between five and ten pounds and were only seventeen to twenty-two inches long. How many inches long are you now? How many times heavier are you now than at birth? Where did the stuff of you come from? How did you get from the size you were to the size you are now? Like me, you may not entirely understand how your body managed to break food down into energy and mass for you to use to live and grow. But, if you think about it, you can see that your body—your self—is literally made up of things that used to be outside of you.
Once you realize that, you can start to see that what we call the nature/nurture debate—all of the endless arguments about genetics versus environment, biology versus social circumstances, instinct versus learning—is mostly silly. The interactions between nature and nurture begin before you are born, multiplying each other so that their effects cannot be untangled.
Was your mother well–off enough to afford good food while she was pregnant with you? Did race or poverty lead her to be living in an area where the drinking water had been polluted by industry? These are just two of the scores of questions we would have to ask to identify all of the “environmental” influences on the “natural” growth of your brain cells as directed by your genes. As we are now only beginning to learn, your genes themselves may have started out damaged by environmental stressors experienced by your parents.
As you grew up, an array of physical and social factors interacted with one other and the biological organism that was you to determine how your brain grew. Did you get enough of the nutrients that brain cells need? Were you exposed to lead or other pollutants that can damage brain cells? Were there books in your home? Were you rewarded or punished for asking questions? Were your caretakers very verbal? Did you get to go to school?
I hope this brief discussion of just a few of the factors related to just one of the aspects of your cognitive and emotional development will convince you to avoid taking sides on a moot question by either reducing yourself to your body or acting as if you could transcend it. Similarly, I hope you will be able to honor the fact that feelings are both physical and social processes.
Besides being physical, emotions are always social. Your very first feelings were signals to other people and were experienced by you in the context of other people. Their reactions became part of you, helping to determine how you would feel about your feelings as well as how you would express them. We are so used to thinking of our feelings as private property, rather than social processes, that this idea may seem strange. But think about this: The sorrow of the infant always includes an implicit wish for comfort or rescue . . . by another person! If the sadness is met with kindness, the baby learns to tolerate emotional discomfort because he can trust that relief will come. If, on the other hand, cries of sorrow are punished, then the growing child learns to hate and fear her own feelings, and may be thrown into despair by what would be simple sadness for most people.
Your own emotional world was created through countless interactions between your internal feelings and other peoples’ reactions to your expressions of them. Because many of these interactions occurred while your brain was still growing, and because the brain remains malleable throughout life, your nervous system was and continues to be shaped in part by other people. This is one more reason to see people as systems of relationships rather than isolated individuals. And, yet again, we can see how dangerous it can be to take sides in constructed controversies about whether feelings are physical or social. They are both. We are both.
Feelings are not just feelings. Yes, they are bodily sensations, but these sensations are interpreted according to cultural traditions and personal history. The process of interpretation requires the brain, which is part of the body. But the brain itself has literally been shaped by environment and experience, including relationships and other intangible factors. Thus, in feelings as in all other things, the relationship between nature and nurture, between the organism that is you and your environment, is multiplicative, synergistic, and cyclical. That means that your relationships and your environment are part of even your most private feelings.
Before moving on to the final section in this chapter, let’s review:
And that brings us to the last few things I need to say about feelings . . .
- Feelings are physical. That means they can’t be wished away.
- Feelings are our friends because they help us survive. That means they shouldn’t be pushed away. When they get stuck or broken, we need to fix them rather than ignore them.
- Feelings are social. They evolve in the context of relationships. That means that hurt feelings can’t be fixed in isolation.
Every species is unique. Giraffes have prehensile tongues and those lovely long necks. Bats use echolocation to locate objects in the dark. Human beings talk. And talk. And talk.
I often wonder what the nonhuman animals who share living space with us think about our incessant yammering, which must sound like nonsense to them. Many other animals use vocalization to communicate, and some even seem to use sounds as symbols in the same way that we do. But our way of using the sounds created by our diaphragm, vocal chords, facial muscles, and tongue—and, in some human groups, symbolizing those sounds with marks on paper—is unique and uniquely important to us. There’s even a part of the human brain—called Broca’s area—devoted to language production and comprehension.
Our singular use of language doesn’t make us better or more valuable than other animals. The ability to create or understand signals not created or understood by other animals does not confer superiority over other animals. Dolphins broadcast and process echoes to navigate in dark waters. Bees stage elaborate dances to communicate precise information about the location of food. Many birds and insects can read floral pollen markings that we can’t even see.
While our way with words doesn’t elevate us over other animals, it is very important to us. We use language not only to communicate with each other but also to make sense of ourselves. We use words to weave our experiences into a story that makes sense. When you do not or cannot put something into words, it hangs around outside the story of your life. Tales that aren’t integrated into the story of your life can’t become part of your past. That’s why the feelings associated with traumatic events can come back with full force, as if the trauma were still happening, many years after the fact.
Have you heard of people losing the ability to talk after a stroke? That’s what happens when Broca’s area of the brain is damaged. Since the earliest days of inquiry into the psychology of trauma, we’ve known that traumatic memories are different from other memories. Traumatic memories tend to stand alone, disconnected from their contexts and from other memories. Traumatic memories also tend to be experienced differently than other memories. They are more strongly sensory and much more difficult to express accurately in words. For example, a woman caught by surprise by a sexual assault from an acquaintance with whom she had been sharing a bed might find herself feeling, again and again, the split-second sensation of a body suddenly rolling on top of her, and might find that words cannot adequately convey the chaos of sensations and thoughts that followed.
Thanks to volunteers who have allowed their brains to be scanned while they remember such traumatic experiences, we now know that these quirks of traumatic memory may have physiological bases. Traumatic memories appear to be stored differently—actually located in different places in the brain—than other memories. It also appears that Broca’s area is partially and even sometimes totally disabled during traumatic experiences; certainly, it is relatively inactive when traumatic events are re-experienced.
That’s why, as Susan Brison writes, “saying something about the memory does something to it.” When we find words for traumatic memories that are stored as somatic sensations, we move the memories from one place to another in our brains. The traumatic sensory fragments may still persist, but they will be increasingly linked to the more coherent story of the event that emerges as the tale is told over and over again. In this way, fragmented memories literally become linked to their surrounding life stories.
People who have survived traumatic experiences need to find ways to talk about them in order for this healing process of reintegration to occur. To be truly useful, such reparative narratives require an empathic and attentive audience. After all, the purpose of words is to talk to other people! But because memories may remain embedded in parts of the body having nothing to do with language, words will not be enough to heal all of the damage that the trauma has done. All of these points—the importance of talking, the need for empathic listeners, and the fact that words are not enough—will turn out to be very important in our examination of aftershock and recovery. The main thing to remember at this point is that we are talking animals. So, one general principle of good emotional health is to talk about your experiences and feelings. One way to help create a healthy organization or community is to listen with empathy when other people talk about their experiences and feelings.
Speaking of talking animals, I can’t let this chapter end without mentioning Dr. Doolittle, who will figure in this book again. You may recall that this fictional personage has the ability to converse with nonhuman animals, to understand and be understood by them. If Dr. Doolittle were alive today, he wouldn’t last a minute without tearing his ears off. How could he, how could anyone, tolerate the screams of terror and pain of the billions of animals locked up and tormented in vivisection labs, egg factories, circuses, dairy farms, and puppy mills? What would it be like to hear the rage and frustration of the millions of wild animals struggling to survive in ever-smaller and more polluted habitats, or pacing their cells in zoos?
We don’t hear those cries. We don’t even hear or heed the explicit pleas of members of our own species. Worldwide, 250 million children live on the streets. A third of all children in Africa live with hunger every day. Two million women and children are trafficked into servitude in brothels every year. Raped daily by many men, these women and children endure unspeakable physical and psychic anguish that often ends only with death.
This is happening right now. We know it and we do not stop it.
Fear of feelings are at work in two ways here. First, because we’ve numbed ourselves both to the pain of those upon whose exploitation our pleasures depend and to our consequent loneliness, we’re used to just not seeing suffering. When we do catch a glimpse, we tend to turn away for fear that sympathy with suffering might lead to a flood of forgotten feelings. Secondly, we’re afraid of our own helplessness. We don’t want to be reminded that the things that have been done to others could be done to us, too. We don’t want to confront our own relative powerlessness in relation to the amoral profiteers who currently rule the world. To act is to risk failure, shame, sadness, and rage.
Some people do act, often risking their own physical and emotional health in the process. Like firefighters who end up burned, they try to respond to cries for help but sometimes end up so damaged themselves that they cannot do so effectively. These are the activists at high risk for aftershock.
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