I believe a psychological factor in post-traumatic stress disorder is being overlooked, one that might be a key to treating the painful, debilitating condition. Current treatments involving therapies and medications are not particularly effective, and the disorder is still not well understood.
This psychological factor operates unconsciously, and some detective work is involved here in uncovering it. The clues are found in the symptoms. The symptoms of acute, chronic, and delayed-onset PTSD are many. They arise following perilous experiences in which individuals felt intense fear, horror, or helplessness.
PTSD develops in some individuals following experiences of bullying, domestic violence, gun violence, sexual abuse, animal attack, and living in dangerous neighborhoods. PTSD has affected more than 15 percent of U.S. soldiers deployed since 9/11. The percentage of Vietnam War veterans affected by PTSD is double that number.
The symptoms involve the onset of troublesome emotions and behaviors. These include nightmares, flashbacks, rage, and addictions, as well as difficulty in suppressing disturbing thoughts and feelings, along with intense guilt for failing (or allegedly failing) to act appropriately or for committing harm to others.
As an overall effect, one’s old familiar sense of self—one’s psychological constitution—has been shattered. The stricken individual has no idea how to restore or reclaim that former self.
We’re all susceptible to being overwhelmed and shattered by life-threatening experiences. Our best defense is inner strength. If we’re lacking inner strength, we can acquire it. An excellent way to do so is through self-knowledge, meaning we learn the ins and outs of unconscious dynamics colliding in our psyche. Unfortunately, this subject is not taught in our schools because so many people have unconscious resistance to seeing themselves more objectively.
The overlooked factor in understanding and treating PTSD concerns the influence in our psyche of lingering, unresolved feelings of helplessness. An emotional association with (or attachment to) feelings of helplessness exists as a default position in the human psyche. As psychoanalysis attests, adults continue to reverberate, in ways that are often unconscious, with the profound helplessness with which they spent so many early years of life. Sigmund Freud referred to this helplessness many times in his writings, and he said it had a profound effect on how most adults experience life.
Not only do we retain emotional associations with childhood helplessness, we also console and fortify ourselves with ideas and beliefs that try to override our helplessness in the face of the forces of nature, the dangers of fate, frailties of the body, prospects of abandonment, malice from others, and death’s inevitability. The mental-emotional edifice we establish to fortify us against helplessness and inner fear is largely unconscious. The edifice is, of course, stronger and more stable in some of us than in others.
What do we need to see or know to make ourselves stronger emotionally? We can start by understanding inner conflict, especially the primary conflict between inner aggression and inner passivity. At this website, I write extensively on these subjects. This knowledge from depth psychology is, in my view, the most important learning we can acquire.
Most people are unaware of an inner conflict concerning helplessness. Here it is: Consciously, we all want to feel strong and powerful, yet unconsciously we’re drawn back into an inner default position involving weakness and helplessness. The conflict contributes to PTSD and also to anxiety, depression, compulsions, addictions, and other deficiencies of emotional and behavioral self-regulation. PTSD sufferers, shattered by personal involvement in explosive events, go crashing back (or regress) into acute emotional experiences involving this helplessness.
Significant inner conflict weakens the individual and throws him or her over to the helpless, passive side. The main inner conflict for all humanity involves the clash between inner aggression (from the inner critic) and inner passivity (as experienced through uncertainty, fear, defensiveness, lack of self-regulation, and a sense of victimhood).
People with significant inner conflict are going to be emotionally weak and thereby more prone to PTSD. Evidence for the role that emotional strength plays in preventing PTSD can be found in the factors that protect individuals from the disorder. Such protective factors include having acquired a high school or college degree, being older at entry to war, being at a higher socioeconomic level, and having had positive paternal relationships. These factors are conducive to a stronger sense of self.
Risk factors for the development of PTSD include having come from an unstable family, childhood abuse, childhood asocial behavior, depression, and alcohol and drug abuse. It appears that PTSD is most likely to strike individuals who face considerable emotional challenges to begin with.
Triggered by life-threatening circumstances, PTSD is an acute experience of being weak and out-of-control. When the remnants of childhood helplessness are extensive in our psyche, we experience ourselves (through a wide variety of conditions and symptoms) as being weak or somehow ineffective. Let me broaden the scope of the problem for a moment. As we try to look at ourselves objectively, I’ll temporarily put aside the topic of PTSD.
Passivity is the human race’s default position. People often have difficulty feeling their inner authority and acting on it. History records our passivity in all its grim details. In our past, masses of people followed the path of least resistance during episodes of fascism, apartheid, totalitarianism, slavery, and racial and gender discrimination. Everyday people, swept up in the madness of crowds, not only tolerated these conditions but actively supported and promoted them.
It’s still happening today. Acting against their interests and those of their descendants, people care nothing and do nothing concerning global warming, resource depletion, environmental degradation, invasion of privacy, growing wealth inequality, and ongoing mayhem and warfare. Many people repress any concerns they may have because they feel helpless to influence events. They’re not actually helpless. Every voice is important. They just feel helpless (and therefore act helplessly or apathetically) because that’s their emotional default position.
Depth psychology strives, in an entirely nonjudgmental way, to expose our emotional weakness. It’s hard to overcome weakness when we can’t see it objectively. This inner weakness can be addressed. It can be seen and understood in a clinical way, as the anomaly in our psyche known as inner passivity.
Not all PTSD sufferers, of course, are going to be receptive to the suggestion that they are passive. Many wounded warriors would be somewhat startled to hear the problem is their passivity. Inner passivity, however, is quite different from our ordinary understanding of passivity. The bravest people can still be plagued by inner passivity. This condition represents a deficiency of self-awareness, not necessarily a deficiency of goodness or courage. The challenge for therapists and healers is to make this inner weakness understood in a non-threatening way, as a universal aspect of human nature that in no way detracts from our essential goodness and integrity.
We can awaken the intelligence of PTSD sufferers to the existence within themselves of inner passivity. They need to establish a foothold in their consciousness that makes room for this concept. In this way, they can begin to see their situation more objectively, separate from the symptoms. When they establish this foothold—this ability to stand back from the symptoms and see the passivity within themselves—they can find inner traction. Otherwise they’re in danger of being swept away by the symptoms and losing themselves in the sense of helplessness and powerlessness.
What might sufferers say to themselves in those moments when their symptoms are raging? They have to try to establish some semblance of truth about the experience of the moment. What in that moment do they need to understand or know? The truth of the moment—when assimilated over time—can set them free.
They will find inner truth in their recognition that they’re making an unconscious choice in that moment to experience themselves through inner passivity. One’s thoughts at such a moment might proceed along these lines:
My mind and emotions are racing out of control, producing horrible images from the past. I must try to understand that this is a very passive experience of myself. I’m feeling helpless to control my thoughts and feelings in this moment. This is not about the horrible images. This is about my unconscious determination in this moment to experience myself though helplessness. I should just be aware of my emotional attachment to this helplessness. It’s not my fault. It’s a common frailty of human nature.
In any case, I’ve been through a lot. This is what can happen. It’s okay. I don’t have to be alarmed or frightened by the images. Just look at how helpless I feel, and try to understand how much I’m tempted or determined in this moment to experience myself through this old weakness. Keep seeing this weakness for what it is. It’s human nature, not a character flaw. This exposes the truth of the moment. This truth will set me free.
When PTSD sufferers are experiencing chronic anger or rage, they can learn that these negative emotions are not just symptoms but also psychological defenses. As defenses, the anger and rage cover up the person’s affinity for experiencing himself or herself through helplessness. The defense reads, “I’m not wallowing in my helplessness. Look at how angry and raging I am about my situation!” The rage feels like power. The rage represents a desperate attempt to muster up some semblance of power, even if that experience is painful and self-defeating, in preference to the default powerlessness.
Many PTSD sufferers experience chronic guilt, often because they allegedly conducted themselves badly or because they were frozen in fear and failed to protect or defend themselves or someone else. Here their inner aggression (from the inner critic) is harassing them for such (allegedly) bad or passive past behavior. The guilt is produced as they absorb the inner critic’s allegations. Through their inner passivity, they allow the inner critic to get away with this emotional abuse.
These concepts can be introduced to PTSD sufferers. Some will likely decline to take on the challenge of such deep introspection, but others will run with it, especially if it’s presented skillfully and accurately.