Like most small children, I ran to my mother whenever I was hurt. The first time I brought her a splinter too deep for tweezers, she told me to sit tight and she’d be right back. I was curious when she returned with a needle and book of matches, especially when she struck a match and held the needle tip in the flame. Only when she explained she was sterilizing it did I realize she intended to use it to dig the splinter out.
I was, to put it mildly, dubious. I suggested the splinter might come out on its own. After all, it didn’t hurt that much. But my mother, a nurse, was not dissuaded. She told me to look away, grit my teeth, and not move my hand. Now, I’d probably say “take deep breaths” instead of “grit your teeth,” but back then “suck it up” was more in vogue than “relax and open to it.” In some quarters it still is. The trouble with sucking it up is that what we don’t see can hurt us. A bacteria laden splinter, untended, can become a festering infection.
These days, bacteria and viruses are known to be unseen organisms that can lay low individuals and whole societies. So it’s hard to remember that, only a little over a century and half ago, the germ theory of disease was just that – a theory, and one not generally accepted, even by educated people. Eventually resistance to the fact that something we couldn’t see was causing dreadful diseases succumbed to scientific evidence. The pudding’s proof was in pasteurization, antibiotics, and the like.
Now COVID-19 offers yet more proof that ignorance provides no protection from unseen threats. It was working its way into the global population before we had any idea what was happening. And as we hope to be emerging from its havoc, astute observers are aware that we may already be in the midst of another, as yet largely unrecognized, epidemic. This one is announcing its presence in increased reports of a raft of afflictions whose cause, like germs, can be difficult to discern and whose commonality is not necessarily apparent.
Anxiety, depression, addiction, auto-immune disorders, and autism are only a few of its possible manifestations. One thing all these dysfunctions have in common is that their causes are unclear; we don’t yet understand how to best treat, let alone cure, them, and most don’t respond to purely physical fixes. Oh sure, pharmacology can sometimes medicate away symptoms. But the variety and complexity of the ways these conditions present – in mood disorders, in systems that evolved to protect bodies turning against them, in the compulsion to seek escape in drugs and alcohol – invites suspicion that there might be something as yet unidentified lurking behind all these diverse types of suffering.
Fortunately, smart people are on the case. One of the most promising possibilities is what might be called “trauma theory.” Like germs, trauma has been with us throughout human history but only recently is it being clearly recognized and called out as a causal factor in what ails us. This is a development that could potentially change humanity’s trajectory as radically as did the discovery of germs.
As always, multiple factors are at work. Genetic research suggests biological elements may affect how easily we can process and recover from challenges in life. We may not be able to do much about influences falling into the category of nature. But nurture, the other traditional component in the debate about what forms us, is more malleable. The effects of early development – including abuse or neglect – certainly linger, but evidence points toward an encouraging truth: at any point in life we can decide to nurture ourselves going forward and mitigate damage that may have been done.
One knowledgeable and compelling voice addressing the unrecognized prevalence of trauma and exploring its consequences is Dr. Gabor Maté, a physician and central figure in a new documentary, Wisdom of Trauma. He points toward a different way of thinking about the subject. “Trauma is not what happens to you. Trauma is what happens inside you, as a result of what happens to you.”
Our bodies are hardwired to react to threats with fight, flight, or freeze, responses that are activated throughout life without conscious input, but which leave imprints on us that can cause discomfort. Naturally, since we don’t like to feel discomfort, we try to shrug it off and move on. But imprints from the past – established since birth, and even before – shape how we respond to the present.
Unless we work to become aware of that conditioning, we won’t know how trauma shapes our reaction. We may feel constantly under threat, leading to free-floating anxiety, or the withdrawal from engagement that marks depression, or any of a host of other symptoms of “unknown” etiology. Compounding the problem on familial and societal levels, we have no way of knowing how much trauma influences others. We see people acting in ways that cause us to shake our heads and wonder what’s wrong with them. That’s why two other people who are blowing the whistle on trauma suggest a different approach.
Instead of asking “what’s wrong with you?” when we don’t understand why someone is acting as they are – or why we ourselves do what we do – we could ask a different question. The book What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, by Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey, offers a straightforward explanation of brain development and how our ability to regulate emotions depends on the nurture we got when young.
This might be discouraging were it not for neuroplasticity. Science has proven we can retrain our brains. It’s never too late. The past created patterns in part of the brain that doesn’t track past, present, and future the way we do in everyday life, patterns that can get triggered without our awareness of them. While we may not be able to turn back the clock and get ideal early nurturing, we can, if we’re willing to tolerate some discomfort, learn to recognize and rewire patterns that harm us and incline us to blame others for problems.
This benefits not only those who do that work, but also society and humanity as a whole. Because humanity isn’t whole at this point. We’re fractured and fragmented, dug in behind individual and tribal perspectives, inclined to seek the company of those whose patterns resemble our own and demonize or avoid those whose patterns don’t. In this way we try to avoid the discomfort that would come from recognizing the complexity of our situations. The pandemic has, again, shown us our interconnectedness. Global problems need to be addressed. Not the least of these is that so many of us have no idea that we don’t have to believe everything we think.
Our minds are workable, but that work is rarely easy. Still, it’s necessary to prevent a nebulous epidemic from spreading further. Knowing that something we can’t see might be causing trouble is the first step. To take the next step, that will allow us to move from harboring a host of conflicting opinions to cultivating real insight about how to solve the problems we face, we need to employ a pair of underutilized human resources, mindfulness and introspection.
Just as ignorance of germs let diseases rage unhindered, so ignorance of trauma may be exacerbating another invisible plague. We can’t heal what we can’t feel. And we can’t feel what we’re afraid to face. Instead, it festers below the surface in our lives, producing toxic thoughts and emotions we mistakenly believe are beyond our control.
But there’s good news: wakeful presence, the basic nature of human beings, is always available. Connecting with it through mindfulness practice, we discover we don’t have to be afraid to feel whatever arises. Our inherent awareness, like sunlight, is a disinfectant. While leaning into the sharp points in life may seem counterintuitive, it can be helpful, metaphorically and literally. Because wakeful presence, always pristine, never needs to be sterilized. And introspection is a needle that can help us get at the splintered parts of our psyches.
Carol S. Hyman is executive director of Applied Mindfulness Training, a non-profit based in Barnet. She is the author of Meeting Your Mind: Harnessing the World’s Greatest Resource.