When the dark days come round, seasoned Orkney winter survivors have to call on extra resources to combat bleak moods. Getting outside into what light there is, or turning round the negatives by appreciating the beauty of winter with its spectacular sunsets and dramatic weather can help. Some swear by Vitamin D supplements, others light boxes. Dark winters are a natural thing unlike the wider mental health crisis which is largely man-made. For those struggling with stress, anxiety and addiction, every day is a test. Our society is not necessarily helping, in fact it is making many sick.
Gabor Maté is a retired Canadian doctor, an addiction, anxiety and trauma specialist. In his writings and talks he urges we consider the whole person in terms of illness. Many will know of children labelled with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD ) for whom the drug Ritalin is prescribed. Maté examines how the pressures of modern society contribute to conditions like ADHD and links trauma and anxiety back to pre-natal and very early childhood years. And yet, despite working among the most desperate community of drug addicts in Vancouver, Maté affirms that recovery is possible.
In the days when humans lived in stable family tribes or small village groups, social connections were simply part of life. These were marked with affirming cultural events and communal connection. Crucially, within those connected groups, children were an integrated part of a multigenerational society and grew up within that context. It’s all very different now with the speed of change running at a faster pace than ever in history. Our brains have not caught up.
The ‘village that raises the child’ is a rarity now and many parents are distant from grandparents let alone the collective childrearing ‘village’ of earlier times. The society we now live in is actively constructed to separate parents from children. Economics trumps nurture. Work and career as a positive choice is only really available to those with wealth and most families are coerced into a hamster wheel existence of juggling and uncertainty. And of course women should have a true choice about whether or not they work.
For most, economic necessity dictates working multiple jobs, anti-social hours and the inevitability that child caring takes place away from the home. A society that has lost any notion of ‘a day of rest’, whether for religious or well-being reasons and relentlessly runs at a hundred miles an hour twenty four seven, is where we are all forced to exist. Parents driven by society away from their children have no choice. None of this is their fault as they are simply trying to exist. The double edged irony of emancipation for many women that their workload has increased with unpaid caring and low paid long hours as well as absorbing the emotional dynamics of the family.
Cortisol, the stress hormone, evolved as a crucial survival mechanism for humans in times when the very real risk of death from foe or predator existed. It meant that if you had to make an immediate fast escape, cortisol worked to produce a surge of adrenalin, sufficient energy boost to outrun the pursuer. Cortisol is still there and working in modern humans despite there being very few times when anyone might have to escape a bear. Instead, the stressors of modern society, created by the 24/7 consumer, competitive life we are told we have chosen as part of our ‘freedom’, produces a constant release of cortisol.
Money, rent, a job, food, Facebook likes, appearance, ability, friends or lack of, gossip, walking on eggshells waiting for someone to lose their temper, are all cumulative stresses. These are compounded and underpinned by incessant advertising everywhere we turn which amplifies everything we fear we lack. Big budget TV ads persuade us our lives will be sorted if we only have this fashion item, that holiday, look that way or sit in that car. Advertisers make money on our unconscious anxieties and material addictions, dangling temporary fixes everywhere.
Lives lived in constant stress can accrue serious biological negative effects. Anyone in fear of an abusive partner, bullying employer or addicted parent may be in constant stress. A key message of Maté’s work is how early in life babies sense whether they are really ‘seen’. Being ‘seen’ or attuned by their primary care giver, usually the mother, is necessary for survival. A child, whose parent is taken away through illness or whose own depression or stress makes them unavailable emotionally, will adopt coping mechanisms which may not be healthy in the longer term. However, Maté is also adamant that none of this is about parent blaming – but that trauma is generational. One generation passes its trauma onto the next. Breaking that generational cycle is key.
If you think of the legacy of wars that are still part of the generational psyche of folk in our country, they mount up to a considerable legacy of collective stress. All these past conflicts spawn the bottling up of grief and unacknowledged personal loss for traumatised service men and women some physically and mentally maimed, some who saw friends blasted to bits and some that loaded body bags onto an aircraft. They must all find coping strategies as must the unexpressed grief of a young war widow trying to raise a baby in grief.
There will be hardly a family untouched by historical trauma and its ripple effects. How much and how far back the trauma legacy goes is conjecture but it cannot go ignored that the collective fear of genocide, which is part of many histories, will carry through families too. The coping mechanisms of the refugee who must lock away tears, bear the grief of the loss of family and community which will impact the children.
A society has been created where work is demanded of humans not nurture and in which weapons of mass destruction and the tools of war are a bed-rock of our economy. A nuclear arsenal sits in Scotland with a kill zone that reaches into the highlands. Who created that society?
Attachment theory began in the 1950s spearheaded by psychiatrist and researcher John Bowlby, when for the first time the interaction of mothers and babies was observed. Attachment is in essence the securities or lack of them that mother and child build during the early years of life. If positive attachment between a mother and child is interrupted or thwarted through loss, depression or factors that make the mother unavailable mentally to the child, then anxiety can result for that infant. An infant will become agitated and can go on into life to continually to feel the anxiety from that early time. It is then that inappropriate coping mechanisms to sooth the stress like nicotine, alcohol, sex and drugs may be adopted. It is not about blame. Parents always try to do their best with only very few exceptions, however with trauma crossing generations, parents themselves may still be unwittingly in the grip of behaviour patterns and anxieties they themselves inherited.
The English class system operates by means of social advancement that involves the removal of young children from their families to the supervision of expensive boarding schools in the pursuit of buying privilege. There, steady adult nurturing in a secure parental environment is supplanted by stiff upper lip regimes where the power of the bully reigns among a jungle of child peers. Survival in that environment produces extreme coping mechanisms, most worryingly for society, a detachment from the ‘weakness’ of empathy and a hardened attitude to the needs of others. These are the children and adolescents that rise ruthlessly to the top of politics to become leaders. Unsurprisingly these adults then perpetuate the system that frames their view of the world, damaged, cruel and mean that it may be. In power, as damaged children inside adults, they bake anxiety into our lives oblivious to its wider human harms.
Gabor Maté states that in our minds we create the world as we see it. In discussion with Russell Brand, he says,
‘if I have a world view that the world is a horrible place, then if I am going to live in that horrible place, I have to be aggressive suspicious competitive and make myself as big as possible so I don’t get eaten up. I have to be grandiose and cunning because that’s the world I am living in and that’s the world our society rewards with power’.
It’s not hard to see politicians who fit that description. Their world view dictates ours because they shape society.
He goes on to say;
‘Large segments of the economy survive because they give people temporary pleasure but do them no good whatsoever in the long term; in fact they are even harmful. We are going so far as to destroy the earth because of our addictions’.
The emptiness we may feel in our lives and the need we have to fill those voids are satisfied with anything from retail therapy, to chocolate, alcohol to gaming and the list goes on. The coping mechanisms to counteract unaddressed trauma can be damaging and these are most obvious in substance addictions which initiate desperate spirals of unhappiness.
There is good news however. Attachment difficulties in childhood can be recovered in later life. A poor beginning or an early life-trauma however awful, does not define a person forever. Although horrific childhood events cannot be changed, the response of the individual to those events can. Counselling can help people redefine uhappy events in their past and enable them to move on from them.
But what of the anxious individual, waiting months and years for an appointment with a professional? To those people a counsellor might say that the way they are feeling will not last forever. It can change. Understanding and recognising personal trauma could help. There are links at the bottom of this article.
At an individual level every family will have a tale of trauma, some will be resilient but worryingly more and more are bereft of the means to interrupt their trauma legacy. With society conspiring to keep us addicted to the things that don’t help and a paucity of mental health professionals to alleviate sufferers, it will be for sufferers themselves to try and step outside their personal triggers and examine them. Sufferers will have to try and figure out where the anxieties came from and why, without judging or being harsh on themselves. Was their unhappiness really their fault, something they deserved when they were four or five years old or younger? What was that thing that fired up into an adrenalin rush of rage? Was there a sequence of other things that were kept down when using anger in a healthy way to be respectfully assertive might have avoided blowing a gasket over something trivial?
From the personal to the political when you consider the things that make people feel powerless like human poverty, drug addiction, lowered ambition, lack of agency, it can seem that turning round the tanker of collective damage is a massive one. By understanding the causes we might be able to show a little compassion to sufferers and addicts and begin a journey to help remove them from the grip of hopelessness. Positive progress starts with baby steps, a day at a time and that is something we can all encourage and support.
Samaritans phone 116 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org
‘In the realm of the Hungry Ghosts, Close Encounters with Addiction’. Gabor Maté
‘Scattered Minds’. Gabor Maté