"PTSD Culture"

Tara Brach, Ph.D.
A free video tutorial from Tara Brach, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist, Meditation Teacher, Author
4.4 instructor rating • 7 courses • 75,005 students

Learn more from the full course

Mindfulness for Anxiety and Sleep - with Tara Brach

Learn Practices that Help Reduce Stress and Calm Fears

02:46:14 of on-demand video • Updated October 2020

  • How to meet challenges with courage and wisdom
  • Understand why trying to avoid fear is a losing strategy
  • Distinguish healthy concern from being caught in fear's trance
  • See how anxiety can fuel addictive and compulsive behaviors
  • Mindfulness strategies for relaxation and improved sleep
English One woman I've been corresponding with - a writer, Carol Peterson - describes it that we have a “PTSD culture.” I think that's a gem of a way of describing it - a PTSD culture; and the pervasive expression of that is anxiety. Anxiety disorders are the most pervasive of any disorder worldwide. And, you know, while some people have really extreme - extremely severe symptoms, most people have some; and it gets triggered at some times in their life more than others. The formal list of symptoms: Feeling tense, nervous, or on edge. I'm not going to do a hand-raise. A sense of dread. Dwelling on negative experiences. Being unable to sleep. Overthinking a situation - my God... we're all there. Restlessness. Being unable to concentrate. Fixing on what will go wrong in yourself. I saw one cartoon and you see this guy in heaven or wherever - he has got angel wings, sitting on a cloud - and he’s got his cell phone, he’s saying, “Hello, Doc, this is the ‘hypochondriac.’ Guess where I’m calling from?!” You know. So there’s that. And then with anxiety of course there’s all these projections like, “Oh, my friend doesn't want to be friends anymore!” We project things. So the deep transformation that's possible around anxiety is to let anxiety be a portal; that we start learning to open to anxiety in a way that actually shifts our sense of who we are. We become the ocean; and there’s waves, but - there’s room for them. We begin our kind of journey in working with anxiety with the attitude, the wise understanding, that's sometimes described as “no mud, no lotus” – meaning: If there’s no aggravating energies that we're really learning to be with, we don't discover the presence that can be so rich and full and awake. Let anxiety be a portal. If you're listening and you know that you get smaller with the energy of anxiety, then the commitment’s not, you know, how do you numb it out. It's: How does it become a portal for spiritual awakening? How can your anxiety help you realize the ocean-ness, so you can be with the waves? That's the key, is that attitude. Then we look at: “Now, okay, let's – let’s hone in a little more and say, you know, what is anxiety? What's actually going on if we start witnessing it?” What we see is there's this looping. There's anxious or fear-thoughts, the worry-thoughts, right? Then they trigger feelings in the body that are, you know, biologically fight-flight-freeze feelings – the clench, the twist, the unpleasantness - which then stimulates more fear-thoughts or anxiety-thoughts, and looping around and around we go. Let's say you're anxious about an upcoming date, or some sort of a business trip, or finishing a project on time or whatever it is and you start thinking about the future and that gets the anxiety going; and it's not just in your thoughts. It's in your body as well; it's very, very physical. The more that happens, the more it becomes a habit of anxiety. Most of us, to some degree or other, have a habit of anxiety. I mean, think of it: We know from neuroscience that, when an emotion comes up, its life is typically 1.5 minutes. But how come emotions turn into these, like, locked-in weather-systems that just won't go away? The thoughts. We keep having the thoughts that keep triggering the feelings, that keep triggering the thoughts. So we get caught in this looping. I like the way Anne Lamott puts it, Annie Lamott, she says, “My mind is my main problem almost all the time. I wish I could leave it in the fridge when I go out - but it likes to come with me.” So most of you are familiar with “Neurons that fire together wire together.” We have this looping, and it just creates the neuronal pathways that we - that are now familiarly what we call “anxiety.” So when - when that habit’s there, even when nothing’s ostensibly wrong, our thoughts are like these heat-seeking missiles: we’re looking for something to worry about! Have you noticed it, that you’re all revved up around Thanksgiving - or mayb... this is for some of us - and how that's going to happen; and as soon as it's done, it's like the “What's next?” We re-land on the next thing. And we know that the basic reason is because we’re still dealing with that, you know, survival negativity-bias installed in us ages ago that was, you know, really good for all the physical threats that were there and we had to pay really close attention because if we didn't we would get decimated and wouldn't pass on our genes. So we still have that. We fixate on what's going to go wrong, and we remember what's going to go wrong, we anticipate what'll go wrong, way more than the good stuff. But what's interesting is what exacerbates that; like, how come some of us have this survival-bias but manage to, you know, through meditation, or through exercise or whatever, really keep remembering, “okay, there’s the ocean and there’s room for the waves” - but others of us are getting slammed around by the waves all the time. How come? And this is where we go back I think to our PTSD culture, and say that it's exacerbated in all of us to some degree because our culture has so much fear in it. I mean, if you look at the news, we're so fixated on the bad news and there's so much of a sense of a “bad other” that's going to in some way take our jobs or hurt us in some way, going to come in and, you know, ruin our economy or the bad other that in some way is going to violate us. There’s so much of that polarization. And then a PTSD culture leans on militancy. Just the way an individual that’s got PTSD will either go for aggression or really close down in defense, so does a culture; it aggresses and it builds walls. That's a PTSD culture. It also is filled with addiction. Speed. Thomas Merton says, “The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of contemporary violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone and everything - is to succumb to violence.” This, too, is the dis-ease of a PTSD culture: that speed and that anxiety - that we’ve just got to race ever faster to get everything done, to do enough, to be good enough.