These Are Not Normal Times
How PTSD develops.
Posted April 3, 2020
In ordinary circumstances, I might be writing about viewing psychological “disorders” or “illnesses” through the eyes of a feminist psychologist. However, these are not ordinary times, although my eyes still focus on issues of gender as they interact with other contextual issues, such as race, ethnicity, class and sexual orientation. These eyes remain the eyes of a feminist developer and practitioner of psychotherapy.
The days are different now for most of us. Moments of fear and anxiety are interspersed with gratitude and joy at still being alive. Then there is the boredom of the interminable minutes and hours alone. Most of us are so used to keeping busy. What is life without the buzz of busyness?
These are not ordinary times. They are times of physical disease and psychological trauma, two spheres of human life separated only because language requires it. The physical disease will pass when we find a vaccine or a treatment, a way to survive and heal, if not cure ourselves. This will certainly occur in due time. The trauma passes for many of us who practice resilience, but not all, and many us will experience what psychology names post-traumatic stress disorder.
But is it really a disorder at all? The field of trauma was initially developed by feminist psychologists of the early 1970s, who took the revolutionary (and still controversial in many circles) leap of believing women’s stories. These women told of having survived rape and incest, beatings and torture. Before this time, psychotherapists dismissed these stories as fantasies and desires, as evidence of female masochism, rather than as recalled memories. Feminist psychologists were the first to believe women and, sure enough, these stories turned out to be true.
A new field was born and today is enormously influential in our understanding of memory and of trauma. This new lens was applied to returning Vietnam War veterans as well as to female survivors of rape and incest, and eventually to survivors of other mind-shattering experiences, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires.
In these cases, for many survivors, the psychological terror remains or morphs into anxiety, depression, panic attacks, night terrors or dissociative experiences. Are they disorders? I think not. Instead, they are very orderly outcomes of trauma and indeed terror.
Currently, the population of the entire planet is being hunted and terrorized by a frightening illness in the form of an invisible virus. We are being instructed in simple and somewhat primitive protections involving masks, gloves, and other disinfecting procedures. Eventually, we will have more sophisticated treatments and ultimately a vaccine.
When the virus is tamed, what happens both to the fear and anxiety and to the methods of personal protection habits of cleanliness? I expect that many of them will continue in a post-traumatic manner. These include, but are not limited to, handwashing, masking in public, as many Eastern cultures already practice, careful sterilization of objects in the home and at work and perhaps even cautiously distancing from other people. Handshaking, a uniquely Western custom deriving from the practice of men checking for weapons in the hands of other men, has only been adopted by women as a result of their entry into the business world in recent years. It is an archaic and easily dismissed practice, in my view, and may be replaced, perhaps by a short bow as practiced also in the East.
Many of these protections will no longer be necessary, but will continue in a post-traumatic manner.